Bath council OKs school sale to Portland developer

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BATH — The City Council voted 7-1 Wednesday to sell the John E.L. Huse Memorial School to a Portland-based developer.

The Szanton Co., which presented its plan to the community in January to convert the 39 Andrews Road building to mixed-income rental housing, is purchasing the property for $150,000, or $25,000 less than the city’s previous asking price.

City Manager Bill Giroux, who said the deal is a good one for the city, noted the project will need subdivision and site plan reviews. City Planner Andrew Deci has also said the density the developer desires will require contract rezoning.

“It’s encouraging that the city is starting to take measures to move surplus property back into the open market,” Councilor Gregory Page said, adding that the Szanton Co. is “very good at what they do.”

He urged citizens to make their opinions on the project known to the council.

“We represent you; we don’t want to make these decisions in a vacuum,” Page said.

No members of the public spoke on the matter at the meeting.

Councilor James Omo, who voted against the sale, said the majority of constituents with whom he has spoken do not favor the project. The impact on an already difficult parking situation was one concern expressed, he said.

“For the amount of money that we’re selling the building for … it’s a large amount of money, but for what we’re selling, it’s a small amount of money,” he said.

The City Council voted last April to sell the nearly 73-year-old building – last used by the Regional School Unit 1 central office until 2010 – for use as senior assisted living. But that deal fell through, and the property stayed on the market for $175,000.

Nathan Szanton, managing principal of the Szanton Co., told the council last month that “we’re interested in doing an historic, tax credit-financed adaptive reuse of the … school into mixed-income apartments.”

Because of the use of the credits, he explained, the project would be governed by “a very good, comprehensive set of standards … that would ensure that we bring the building back to its original look in a very high-quality fashion.”

The building – which has more than 33,000 square feet of space, and has always been owned by the city – will have new windows and energy-efficient construction, the company has said.

Szanton’s project does not include acquisition of the school playground. Fifty-four mostly one-bedroom apartments would be created, with 32 in the existing structure and 22 in a new northeast wing.

About 25 percent of the units would be rented at market rate, with the rest income-restricted. A household of two that earns up to $28,550 annually would be able to rent a one-bedroom unit for $669 a month, including heat and hot water, according to the company, which has said the housing would not be a Section 8 project.

The company screens its tenants, conducts personal interviews and credit and criminal background checks, and consults applicants’ prior landlords, Szanton said, adding that troublesome tenants are quickly removed.

Bath’s Comprehensive Plan encourages mixed-income housing development, and housing for seniors and young professionals, Szanton has also noted.

His company would provide 65-70 parking spaces, or one per apartment, and about 10-15 other spaces for guests, and tenants who own more than one car. Nearly all the apartments would have one bedroom.

Szanton expressed a commitment to providing parking for residents and their guests, at a minimal impact to the neighborhood.

The company will know by December if its MaineHousing affordable housing tax credit funding application is successful. If so, it could close on the property in late spring 2016.

If Szanton does not receive the credits, an agreement with the city would be extended a year to allow a second application in October 2016, with a closing in spring 2017.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.