SOUTH PORTLAND — The School Department is seeking a zoning change to allow sections of a new middle school at 120 Wescott Road to be four stories tall.

The City Council heard the request Nov. 27 during an update from the School Department on plans to build the $50 million consolidated middle school for grades 5 through 8 behind Memorial Middle School. MMS would remain open until construction is done, when the new school would replace both Memorial and Mahoney Middle School.

The existing schools each contrain students in grades six through eight.

Because parts of the proposed new building would exceed the 35-foot limit in the surrounding Thornton Heights residential neighborhood, the council must grant a conditional zone for the 17-acre parcel that would allow some parts of the school to be as tall as 60 feet.

With a preliminary nod to move forward from four of the five councilors seated Tuesday night, the zoning request now goes to the Planning Board for a public hearing in December and will eventually come back to the council for a vote.

“In order to make building as compact as possible, preserve green space, and maintain the existing middle school building while the new building is constructed, the new building is proposed to be four stories,” Superintendent Ken Kunin said in a memo to the council.

Councilor Kate Lewis said she was “not inclined” to support the zoning change at this time and was “underwhelmed” by Tuesday night’s presentation. She said the council and the public must see other layouts that were considered by architects before deciding if a conditional zone for increased height is the best fit for the property.

She said she’s heard from “scores” of her constituents in District 2 who are opposed to the consolidated school, including two who resigned from the building committee because of their strong opposition to the plans. 

“This entire thing could fail at the polls,” Lewis said. “(We should) take more time now … before going through an entire zone change.”

Other councilors said they wanted to see the project move forward, but feared that building plans might change. They also expressed concern about a 60-foot area of the school being built at the highest elevation possible on the parcel. 

Councilor Claude Morgan said he was concerned that there would be a very tall building on the top of the hill that would impact nearby neighborhoods. 

Architects told councilors that the concept plan they laid out would likely be the only feasible way the building could fit on the parcel. 

Still, Planning Director Tex Haeuser said it would be possible to add a building envelope to ensure the conditional height could only apply to certain buildings. 

Corporation Counsel Sally Daggett said it would be more workable to add a contingency that bases the allowed building height on the setback from neighboring properties – the closer to abutters, the shorter the building.

Haeuser affirmed there would be a way to “tighten” the language to ensure minimal impact on neighbors. 

Under a tentative schedule drafted in May, a public forum and straw poll vote on a concept design for the building were to be held in November or December, but have been postponed. 

Kunin said forums are now expected sometime in January, with the straw poll following in February.

“We wanted to share a concept design that is possible in the community forum,” Kunin said. “Because of this, waiting until after the zoning process was well under way made sense.”

A 151-49 straw vote in June showed that city residents overwhelmingly approved the concept of a consolidated middle school, which would be funded by the state.

Since September, the Middle School Building Committee has been meeting twice a month to discuss a concept plan and will next meet on Dec. 6 and 20 at 6:30 p.m. 

According to the School Department, moving fifth grade to the middle school allows expansion of public pre-K in South Portland.

Between now and when the school is tentatively expected to open in 2022, a conceptual plan must be approved by the Maine Department of Education, the city School Board, and in a city referendum, slated for June 2019. If approved, construction is expected to begin in 2020.

Jocelyn Van Saun can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 183 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @JocelynVanSaun.

The South Portland School Department is seeking a zoning change to allow a new, consolidated middle school to be built next to Memorial Middle School on Wescott Road.