Town turns out to talk about future of school property

By Sarah E. Reynolds | Feb 11, 2020
Photo by: Sarah E. Reynolds Stockton Springs Town Manager Jennifer King, standing at front, takes questions from residents about the future of Stockton Springs Elementary School Feb. 10.

Stockton Springs — A meeting to discuss the March 3 vote on whether to sell Stockton Springs Elementary School Monday drew 50 to 60 residents, who had a lively exchange with selectmen and Town Manager Jennifer King.

The school was closed in 2017, and in April 2019, Regional School Unit 20 offered it to the towns of Searsport and Stockton Springs for zero dollars. Searsport declined, but Stockton Springs accepted, and residents voted at a meeting in October 2019 to spend up to $40,000 to maintain the building until a disposition for it could be decided upon. The school was known to have mold inside when it was acquired, although, according to King, subsequent tests have shown that it was not as extensive as first thought.

The Feb. 10 meeting began with a slide presentation where King went over the wording of the referendum question to be voted on March 3; money spent on the school to date, including both ongoing expenses and one-time expenditures; potential uses of the school property as currently zoned and possible tax assessments on various uses of the property if it were to be sold. Then she opened the floor to comments and questions.

Three main concerns quickly emerged: whether the town would receive a sufficient price for the property if residents vote to sell it, how much control the town would have over the eventual use of the property if it is sold, and whether the town could use the property for the benefit of residents instead of selling it.

The first question was about the results of a survey sent out to residents in September 2019 that asked what they wanted to do with the property. King said of the 87 responses received, most wanted to sell all or part of the property. She later added that, while there have been some inquiries about purchasing the property, no interest has been received in buying only part of it.

King attempted to reassure those concerned about how much the property would be sold for, saying at one point, "You will recoup all of your money back, and then some, hopefully." She said several times that the property would not be sold for less than the town has invested in it.

As for the issue of control over the eventual use of the property, King noted that it is zoned R1, with permitted uses including cluster housing, multifamily housing, professional offices, personal service businesses, public health and motels, hotels, inns and bed and breakfasts. Any of those uses would require Planning Board approval, she said.

Furthermore, if a buyer wanted to change the zoning, King told The Journal Feb. 11, the developer would be required to file an application with the Planning Board, a public hearing would be set and abutters invited to attend and offer their comments on the proposal. The change would be granted by the Planning Board or not, based on the proposed use.

A number of people at the meeting voiced the desire to keep the school and turn it into a recreation center or other public facility. Selectman Betsy Bradley said she saw great potential in the school when it was first offered to the town and hoped for a public use as well, but she is also aware that many people in town struggle to pay their property taxes now, and she is reluctant to ask them to take on the cost of mold remediation — estimated to be between $100,000 and $225,000, according to the slide presentation. In addition, she said, the school has a decades-old furnace which "could go tomorrow." Cost estimates to demolish the building, including removal of an underground storage tank, run from $120,000 to $156,000.

According to King's presentation, the school contains a gymnasium, kitchen and classrooms with total square footage of $23,162. It is on 9.5 acres of land with 550 feet of road frontage that contains a playground, field and small shed. The current tax assessment of the land is $328,000; the building is assessed at $133,080.

Before the meeting broke up, it was suggested and agreed that if the town votes not to sell the property, a volunteer strategic planning committee will be formed to work on proposals for the future of the school, and a sign-up sheet was passed around the room. King also invited anyone interested in volunteering to contact her.

She told The Journal Feb. 11, "It was nice to see the turnout of people interested in talking about the future of the school."

Polls will be open March 3 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Town Office.

The town will vote March 3 on whether to sell Stockton Springs Elementary School. (Source: File photo)
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