Avoidance of bias

Camden Planning Board chairman recuses himself from new school review

Fri, 11/03/2017 - 2:45pm

    CAMDEN — The Camden Planning Board was down to three members Thursday evening, Nov. 2, as it reviewed a proposed ordinance change that, if approved, would allow the new Camden-Rockport Middle School to exceed existing height limits. Board Chairman Lowrie Sargent had recused himself at the proceeding’s outset and went to sit in the back of the room, leaving Vice Chairman Jeff Senders in charge of the ensuing discussion.

    Besides the zoning amendment, the board’s agenda also included an initial introduction to the new school plans, as submitted by Biddeford-based architects Oak Point Associates. 

    Although Camden and Rockport voters approved building a new $26 million middle school at the polls in June 2017, the project must still proceed through the municipal process of site plan review, and obtain necessary state and local permits.

    Sargent stepped down as planning board leader for the school’s site plan review process to avoid any semblance of bias on the part of the planning board, given the project’s history over the past three years.

    In 2014-2015, when School Administrative District 28, which comprises Camden-Rockport K-8 schools, first proposed building a new school on Knowlton Street, Sargent had joined others on the Camden planning and select boards (Camden and Rockport) in objecting to the timing of a February special town meeting.

    On Dec. 3, 2014, the Camden Planning Board wrote a letter to then-Superintendent Elaine Nutter, saying the school board decision to hold a February special town meeting on a $28 million new school project was “precipitous and will not allow adequate time for citizens to familiarize themselves with the proposal.”

    While the voters said no to a $28 million new school project in 2015, they later approved in June 2017 a $26 million new school project, which calls for tearing down the existing Camden-Rockport Middle School complex on Knowlton Street and building a new 83,400-square-foot school. Last month, the architects submitted the plans to the town office to begin the planning board review process.

    Still, Sargent said he wants to “avoid any potential problems.”

    “It is important for the board to make a decision that will stand up over time,” he said, following the meeting.

    Sargent, who is a seasoned planning board chairman, understands the need to protect the integrity of the process. That includes avoiding financial conflict of interest and the appearance of bias.

    “We are a nation of laws and a town of laws,” he said. “It is important to follow those basic steps.”

    Formerly, he was employed by the contractor company McCormick Builders, and he said he would step aside if a project that involved that company appeared before the Camden Planning Board.

    Likewise, “if Chris McClean’s [former planning board chairman and local attorney] law firm represented a client, he would step aside,” said Sargent. “You want to make it look as clean as possible.”

    The Maine Municipal Association published in 2009 a 467-page handbook on Planning Board process and procedures. Under the bias and conflict of interest section, it recommends: “Even if no legal conflict of interest exists, a board member would be well advised to avoid even the appearance of a conflict by abstaining from the board’s discussion and vote. This practice will help maintain the public’s confidence in the board’s work.”

    Increase building heights in Camden’s Traditional Village?

    Approximately 20 citizens and school officials had gathered in the Washington Street Conference for the Nov. 2 regularly scheduled meeting to address new school related items: the proposed ordinance change and the site plan review application itself. (Click here to watch the recording of the meeting.)

    With three members left on the dais— Senders, Richard Bernhard and Rosie Curtis, who herself just joined the board — the Camden Planning Board attempted to regroup and address the zoning amendment. Per town procedures, first the planning board considers zoning amendments, and then sends them on to the Camden Select Board, with or without endorsement, for the select board to consider placing before voters.

    The Planning Board has two alternates, James Elliott and Mark Siegenthaler, but neither were in attendance Nov. 2. The board has been reduced by one permanent member, given the retirement of John Scholz, who is now a member of the SAD 28 new school Building Committee.

    In September, the SAD 28 Building Committee addressed the discrepancy between the architectural design of the new proposed Camden-Rockport Middle School and current Camden zoning. The new building design exceeded the 30-foot height limitations in the Traditional Village District by five feet.

    Subsequently, the school district submitted a request for the town to amend current zoning to allow eight more feet to the height limitations so that the new middle school can be compliant. Either the building plan would have to change to meet municipal regulations, or Camden voters would have to approve an amendment to the height limitation.

    SAD 28 crafted language for the ordinance change, which increases the maximum building or structure height for the Camden Traditional Village District from 30 feet to 38 feet, but only on lots home to public schools existing as of 2017. The district’s goal is to schedule a special town meeting in December to vote on the amendment. 

    If the town opposes the zoning change, then the architects are to lower the rear classroom wing, which would require the addition of stairs in the main corridor.

    At the planning board meeting, Camden-Rockport Middle School Principal Jamie Stone told the planning board that the school has 370 students in it every day, and there are many with broken bones and sprains. She said she had a strong reaction to a design that incorporates a staircase.

    “The flow has an impact on the tone,” she said.

    “These stairs will make the corridor more difficult to monitor, make accessibility more challenging and increase the overall construction cost of the project,” wrote Oak Point, in a memo to the town. “By increasing the allowable height for a school in this ordinance, the building will best meet the educational needs of the community without impacting the character of Knowlton Street. In fact, the building will be lower than what has existed there for nearly 100 years.”

    Acting Chairman Jeff Senders said he envisioned no conflicts with the ordinance amendment.

    “Thirty eight feet seems arbitrary,” he said. “What about 40? It’s a clean, round number.”

    Board member Richard Bernhard asked why the architects did not allow for the height limitation when they started designing the school a year ago.

    Building Committee member John Scholz said, “The site plan shifted from time to time on site, so the school shifted.”

    He said, “If we are going to have a new school, the common practice is not the have stairs where kids run up and down.”

    Scholz added that if the amendment does not proceed through the process, a ramp or staircase will be built along one wing. Additionally, the classroom windows along that wing would be sunk further to the ground. 

    “I favor whatever wording to see that this moves forward and protects the district,” he said.

    Scholz also mentioned that the adjacent zoning district allows 38 feet for school heights.

    Superintendent Maria Libby said the Knowlton Street building site is “small, relatively, and tight. The site constrains what we can do.” 

    Addressing the board as a member of the public, Lowrie Sargent asked whether abutters had been notified of the proposed amendment.

    “Typically, when the planning board hears zoning requests, abutters are notified.”

    He also said the Camden Hills Regional High School incorporated ramps and stairs into its design.

    “This would not be an unusual thing,” he said.

    Sargent also clarified that zoning changes are conventionally of two types: those that affect the entire district, and those that involve existing buildings whose functions are exhausted and require a change of use.

    He said the proposed height limitation amendment set a precedent for others in town to do the same.

    What if someone comes in who lives near the water and wants to have a better view? Asked Sargent. “This sets a precedent.”

    The applicant said the ordinance change would greatly enhance the design.

    “Others could use those same words,” said Sargent. 

    Planning Board member Rosie Curtis acknowledged that was a legitimate concern, but Senders disagreed. 

    “I don’t think it opens up the door for someone on the water to go taller,” he said.

    Notify abutters

    The three board members then agreed that abutters should be notified about the proposed zoning change, and scheduled another public hearing on the matter for Nov. 9, at 5 p.m.

    “I’d like to get more input from constituents,” said Bernhard. “It is just the three of us for a big project. It is in town and I think the neighborhood should speak out.”

    Jeanne Hollingsworth, in the Camden code office, said Nov. 3 that she sent out Nov. 9 meeting agendas to 44 property owners in the immediate area of the Knowlton Street site. 

    When the project goes before the planning board for official site plan review, immediate abutters will also get notice of that hearing via registered mail.

    The Nov. 9 agenda is as follows:

     This meeting is being held for the sole purpose of hearing public comments regarding the request by SAD 28 to increase the allowable height of buildings in the Village District from 30' to 38' to accommodate the proposed design of the new middle school on Knowlton Street. Those who want background information on the project, including the Power Point Presentation by the Applicant, should watch the live stream of the Planning Board Meeting of November 2, 2017 that can be accessed from the Town website at:






    Item E Standards: 2.The following space and bulk standards shall apply:





    30 feet


    30 feet

    Lots on which public schools existed as of 2017

    38 feet



     Site plan review of middle school

    After discussion the ordinance amendment, the planning board then commenced its informal discussion of the new school plans for approximately 20 minutes.

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    Editorial Director Lynda Clancy can be reached at lyndaclancy@penbaypilot.com; 207-706-6657