Street access throws wrench into Portland school project

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PORTLAND — The committee overseeing reconstruction of Fred P. Hall Elementary School will be taking another look at access to the property before site approval is sought from the state.

City Councilor Ed Suslovic, chairman of the Hall School Building Committee, said the committee voted to recommend a site plan with an access road off Riggs and Lamond streets. Both are unapproved streets and would have to be brought up to city standards, Suslovic said.

But now a nearby property owner has offered to sell property to the city that would provide easier access to the school. Robert Hains, of Holm Avenue, owns just over 7,000 square feet of what he called “buildable land” on Warwick Street.

Hains said he put “$81,000 on the table” for a sale price, which, he said, would be a good deal for the city.

“I think it’s a fair price for a buildable house lot in Portland with water and sewer access,” Hains said.

Hains said his parcel is better than the committee’s proposal because “it is less than half the distance they were planning,” and it is “a relatively flat piece of land,” which would cause less disturbance to nearby wetlands. He said it would be a private drive, which means the road can be built to a less expensive standard.

Replacing the aging school at 23 Orono Road is expected to cost $20 million. Hall was placed on the state’s Major Capital Construction Approved Projects List last April, making it eligible to receive state funding.

Suslovic said a majority of those who voted in a straw poll at a Sept. 29 public forum supported the committee’s site plan recommendation. He said Hains first brought up his proposal at the forum, and then contacted the state Department of Education, which in turn contacted the committee.

Suslovic said access off Riggs and Lamond streets would be better, because there would be less traffic congestion and there would be fewer problems in the event of a motor vehicle accident. He said the proximity of Hains’ property “would cut off the school completely” if there were an accident on the road.

In an email sent to members of the committee, Scott Brown, the director of school construction programs for the MDOE, said since the project is being funded by the state, there must be “justification and financial discipline in decisions made” about site and concept approvals.

“We assume that (Hains’) property has been reviewed, and if there are extenuating circumstances why it was ruled out you need to provide this information in writing to us,” Brown wrote.

The email concluded the state would not move forward with site approval until the issue is resolved.

Robert Tillitson, president of Oak Point Associates, architects of the new school, said access off Riggs and Lomond streets “was the best solution at the time.” He said Hains came forward with his proposal after the decision was already made.

Tillitson said the firm hadn’t reviewed Hains’ lot before since it was so close to Orono Road, and they had wanted more separation. He said the fact that Riggs and Lamond are city-owned streets also played a role, and having a road coming off Warwick could impact neighbors.

“There were a lot of reasons we went that direction in the first place,” Tillitson said. He added if the city ultimately prefers access off Warwick Street, Oak Point can do that.

Suslovic said he hopes to have cost estimates for both projects at the Wednesday, Nov. 4, committee meeting, when the panel is expected to vote on whether to reaffirm the initial recommendation. If the committee does vote for the alternative plan involving Hains’ property, members would have to schedule another public forum for a second straw poll.

Suslovic said while there had been strong support for the original access point, the state will ultimately decide how much funding the project gets. He said if the state concludes the alternate access plan is more appropriate, it will be up to the committee to decide “whether or not we feel it’s worth spending local dollars on difference of cost of two plans.”

Both Suslovic and Tillitson said other planning aspects, like floor plans and layout, have gone smoothly. Tillitson said there have been some modifications to the floor plan, such as classroom layout within the footprint, which have been well received.

“We’re in a great place right now,” he said.

A referendum on replacing the school is tentatively slated for next spring. Construction is expected to begin in May 2017, and September 2018 is the projected opening of the new school.

Capacity of the new building is projected at 525 students, requiring a school of 75,000 square feet.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

The Fred P. Hall Elementary School at 23 Orono Road, Portland.

The proposed site plan for the Fred P. Hall Elementary School at 23 Orono Road, Portland.

Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or