June 22, 2018
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Castine, MMA file Abbott House arguments

By Rich Hewitt, BDN Staff

CASTINE, Maine — Briefs filed recently in connection with the town’s action against Maine Maritime Academy regarding the college’s use of the Abbott House offered differing views of the local zoning ordinance.

The town is seeking a declaratory ruling on its claim that use of the building as a residence for the college president would violate the town’s zoning ordinance.

The academy purchased the historic building and approximately 6 acres it sits on for $1.45 million last year. Officials indicated the college would use the historic house as the president’s home.

The property is located outside the town’s institutional development district as described in its zoning ordinance. The house is across the street from the Wyman House, the current home of the MMA president, in the Village III district, a residential zone, in which institutional uses are prohibited.

In a brief filed last week, Assistant Maine Attorney General William H. Laubenstein, who represents the college, suggested that the case be dismissed and urged Superior Court Justice Kevin Cuddy to rule that the college’s use of the building as a residence was a permitted use under the ordinance.

Laubenstein agreed that the college fits the ordinance’s definition of an institution, but noted that a postsecondary school is the only one of a number of institutions cited in the ordinance that is excluded from the Village District III zone.

“Given the wide range of permitted uses in the Village District III, it is difficult to rationally justify Castine’s prohibition on the academy’s using the Abbott House as a residence for its president,” he wrote.

He argued that the ordinance is unreasonable and unconstitutional and “should be struck down.”

He also argued that the academy’s use of the building as a residence would not clash with the cited purpose of the ordinance. While the ordinance clearly indicates that the institutional zone was established to “limit the further expansion of existing institutional development,” Laubenstein said, the use of the Abbott House as a residence would not affect other elements cited in the ordinance such as “public health, safety, environmental quality and economic well-being of the town,” a phrase used in citing the purpose of both the Village III and Institutional districts.

“There’s nothing in the record that shows that using the Abbott House as proposed would be inconsistent with the expressed purposes of the ordinance,” he wrote.

Laubenstein also suggested that the town’s request for a declaratory judgment may be premature. He wrote that no “judicial conflict” exists because, although MMA has purchased the property, it has not yet used the building and the town’s code enforcement officer has not issued a notice of violation.

Until there is a violation, he wrote, any opinion from the court would be “merely advisory, which would require dismissal of the case.”

In his brief, town attorney Geoffrey H. Hole said the president’s house serves as more than a residence and often is used for receptions. In addition, he argued that the purchase of the Abbott House would provide institutional support of the academy.

Hole said the use of the Abbott House will aid the college’s plans for “space conversion and expansion because it will facilitate a domino effect of uses of the Wyman House and other properties.”

He maintained the town’s stance that the proposed use of the property was an “institutional use” and that it would violate the intent of the ordinance to protect the town from “institutional creep.” Hole cited court rulings from other states that the primary use of a college president’s house was for “educational purposes” and that “a college president’s residence ‘located directly across the street from the campus’ and ‘overlooking the campus’ was part of the campus.”

The attorneys have until Thursday to file reply briefs in Hancock County Superior Court. No date has been set for a hearing.

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