PORTLAND, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court will hear arguments Thursday in the appeal from the town of Castine of a ruling in Superior Court regarding Maine Maritime Academy’s use of the Abbott House.
The town had argued that the use of the Abbott House by the college violates the town’s zoning ordinance.
MMA purchased the property in September 2007 with the stated intent of using it as a residence for future college presidents. Before the purchase was completed, the town, through the selectmen and planning board, notified college officials that the use of the property as a residence would be considered an institutional use that is not permitted in the town’s Village III residential district.
In January, Superior Court Justice Kevin Cuddy ruled in favor of MMA, noting that “as a matter of law, the Abbott House may be used as a residence for MMA’s president as it’s principal use,” according to court documents.
In documents filed with the law court, the town’s attorney Geoffrey Hole argued that the court’s approach to “one property of a multipropertied, multifaceted entity is narrow and unworkable.”
Hole noted that the college dominates the village area of Castine even though it is located in an institutional zone under the town’s zoning ordinance, which was established to protect the town from “institutional creep.” He argues that the current president’s residence, the Wyman House, also is used for student, faculty, alumni and trustee receptions during the year.
While the college has several other facilities in the village districts, those are grandfathered.
He argued that MMA’s use of the Abbott House constitutes a conversion of the residence to an institutional use, which is not grandfathered and is, in fact, an expansion of the institution into a residential district.
“The voters of Castine have an absolute right to be concerned about such an intrusion and an absolute right to regulate such an intrusion in their zoning ordinance,” he wrote.
The crux of the argument is that the Abbott House is part of the “unified facility” that is the college and that the use of the property as a residence for the president is in fact an expansion of the institutional use into the residential zone. He urges the court to reverse the Superior Court decision and rule that such a use is not allowed in the town’s Village III district.
MMA, however, argues that the Superior Court ruled correctly and that its decision should be affirmed and the appeal denied.
In documents filed with the law court, Maine Assistant Attorney General William H. Laubenstein III, who represents MMA, cited Justice Cuddy in noting that the town “misconstrues the effect of the zoning ordinance. … A zoning ordinance restricts uses not ownership. … MMA is no more restricted from owning and maintaining a residence in Village District III than any other person or entity.”
Laubenstein drove that point home noting that in testimony before the Superior Court, town officials testified that a Catholic church, which is an institution under the definition in the town’s zoning ordinance, could purchase property and use it as a residence for a priest.
“This testimony demonstrates that Castine is simply trying to prevent the academy from owning any more property in the town,” he wrote.
He noted that the town’s references to other properties owned by the college and the activities held at the Wyman House also demonstrates that, “as the Superior Court noted, that Castine’s request for relief is based on its objection to ownership of the Abbott House by the Academy, not its use.”
“Zoning ordinances, however, control the use of land, not ownership,” he said.