Even if the Maine Supreme Judicial Court rules decisively on a dispute between Maine Maritime Academy and Castine, the conflict between town and school may not be resolved.
The problems in Castine are exacerbated by the fact that when the academy is in session, the student and staff population nearly equals the town population. Further complicating matters is that many homeowners enjoy the peace and quiet when school is out, but may resent the influx of several hundred midshipmen in the fall.
And finally, the most difficult wrinkle in the Castine-MMA conflict is the town’s geography; the village area is essentially an island, a small one at that, leaving little room for the academy to expand.
To avoid the “institutional creep” that occurs in towns that host large health care facilities, museums and government offices, Castine wisely developed a land use plan that limited MMA to a specific footprint, which is slightly larger than the academy’s holdings. The thinking was that if it needed to expand, it would have room.
The academy then purchased the Abbott House adjacent to campus — but outside the institutional zone — and announced it would use it as its president’s house. The town objected, concluding that would make its use institutional, since receptions and other functions would be held there. MMA countered that the institution should be able to purchase real estate elsewhere in town and that using it for the president’s residence would not violate the ordinance’s purpose of protecting the town’s public health, safety, environmental quality and economic well-being. The Superior Court ruled that the house could be used as a residence for MMA’s president if that were its principal use.
The town appealed to the law court, which recently heard arguments in the case.
A healthy, ongoing dialogue between the institution’s administration and town officials might have avoided the legal showdown. Institutions, whether they are schools, hospitals or museums, should regularly communicate their needs and challenges to town officials, well before they are acute, and work to find solutions. Too often, institutions believe they do not answer to the town, and flout its rules. They often learn the hard way that state courts give great weight to municipal authority.
Castine, which was the site of a European settlement before the Mayflower reached these shores, is known as “the battle line of four nations.” The French displaced the native people, then the Dutch and English fought over it, and finally the fledgling American nation suffered a catastrophic naval defeat there during the War for Independence. The Americans lost the battle, but won the war. Castine and MMA can and should work to get beyond the town’s combative history, and move to a mutually victorious resolution, with each thriving.