SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council on Tuesday unanimously passed a first reading of a proposed zoning change to allow sections of a new, consolidated middle school at 120 Wescott Road to be four stories.

As if to underscore the need for a new school, a boiler problem kept Memorial Middle School closed for three days this week. Students were expected to return to school Friday. 

Also on Tuesday, the council unanimously approved amendments to ordinances regulating the licensing and zoning of medical marijuana retail businesses. 

The conditional school zone would allow construction of a $50 million school for grades 5-8 behind Memorial Middle School. Memorial would remain open until construction is done, when the as-yet-unnamed new school would replace Memorial and Mahoney middle schools.

To make the building as compact as possible, preserve green space, and maintain the existing middle school building while the new building is being constructed, City Manager Scott Morelli said portions of the new building are proposed to be four stories, or 60 feet high.

It requires a conditional use zoning amendment because the Thornton Heights neighborhood is in a Residential A zone, which allows a maximum height of 35 feet.

The Planning Board passed the text amendment and zoning map change by a 7-0 vote Dec. 12.

During a previous first reading on Nov. 27, some councilors said even with the setbacks proposed, the area where four-story buildings would be allowed should be limited to the central portion of the property, where the taller parts of the new school are being proposed. They also felt a 60-foot structure should not be allowed, now or in the future, closer to the residential neighborhoods.

In response, the School Department and Corporation Counsel Sally Daggett revised the proposed language to create an envelope in the middle of the site for increased building height. Outside of that area, no building or part of a building could exceed 35 feet, which is the limit in the surrounding zone.

The council will hold a public hearing and vote on the revised zone change Jan. 3, 2019. After that, councilors will have no further say in whether a consolidated middle school will be built at the 17-acre site.

School officials plan to host community meetings early next year before holding a straw vote on the design concept in February and a citywide referendum on the project in June.

School expected to reopen

The boiler problem at Memorial kept students home Monday and Wednesday. They were expected to attend classes at South Portland High School on Thursday, according to Superintendent of Schools Ken Kunin.

Kunin said custodial staff on Monday morning discovered the boiler room had flooded and the school had no heat; classes were canceled. During the cleanup, staff became aware of the smell of oil and sought assistance from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and Clean Harbors, which helps remediate such problems. 

The school reopened Tuesday, although some classrooms remained closed. But the boilers went down again at mid-morning.

Kunin said the DEP and maintenance staff have continued to make repairs and installed venting in the boiler room that should prevent odors from seeping into the building.

On Wednesday, Kunin said he had hoped Memorial could be open Thursday, but later said the school would remain closed and students would attend a half day at the high school. Sixth-graders were scheduled to have classes, while seventh- and eighth-graders went on a field trip to see “A Christmas Carol” at Portland Stage Company.

“We have made considerable progress,” Kunin said in an email to families. “We have also worked on improving air circulation to take care of any odors that may have built up in a few areas around the building. We have seen improvement, but not enough to open Memorial on Thursday.”

Marijuana rules

Starting Jan. 8, medical marijuana establishments will be allowed in specific commercial and industrial districts throughout the city. The zoning will align with existing limits on adult-use marijuana businesses, as adopted in 2017.

Under the approved amendments, the odor of marijuana will not be allowed outside the businesses, which Assistant City Manager Joshua Reny said primarily applies to cultivation facilities. Applicants will be also be required to provide the city with odor-control plans.

In keeping with state law, marijuana facilities will not be allowed within 1,000 feet of public or private schools.

The council also required 300-foot setbacks from the city’s two community centers, the Boys & Girls Club, licensed child-care facilities, Southern Maine Community College and the Wainwright Athletic Complex.

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

Memorial Middle School in South Portland was closed most of this week because of a boiler problem. City councilors on Tuesday night, meanwhile, advanced a zone change that will allow some portions of a new consolidated middle school on Wescott Road to be four stories. A public hearing and final council vote will be held Jan. 3, 2019.