June 19, 2018
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Rockland council rejects conversion of former elementary school into arts and science center

By Stephen Betts, BDN Staff

ROCKLAND, Maine — The Rockland City Council will not reconsider a request by a group that is interested in converting a former elementary school into an arts and science center.

Mayor Brian Harden ruled Monday night that a proposal by Councilor Elizabeth Dickerson to delay demolition of the former MacDougal School, to allow the nonprofit organization The Old School Institute for Arts and Education time to inspect the building, was too similar to an agenda item rejected last month and would not be placed on the July 9 regular monthly meeting agenda.

Harden, however, said he had no objections to the Old School touring the building with engineers to determine if the building was worth saving.

A majority of councilors, however, said that their vote last month to both reject a delay in demolition and to allow the Old School to inspect the building with an engineer should stand.

City Manager James Smith said Tuesday that with the council’s directive to move forward with demolition, he does not feel he can authorize the group to go through the building with engineers.

Dickerson said she raised the issue again at the request of Joseph Steinberger of Rockland, a director of the Old School group.

Dickerson said the proposed use of the building by The Old School was one possible option but it may turn out not to be the right one. She said she felt it was fair to let the group inspect the building. Harden agreed.

Councilor Larry Pritchett said an extensive public process already has occurred. He said the council voted last month and there needs to be an end to the debate.

Councilor Eric Hebert said no one should be allowed to go through the building unless it’s part of the pending demolition.

Smith said he expects he will have city staff perform the demolition during the fall, although no firm schedule has been developed.

Dickerson also requested that an opinion by City Attorney Kevin Beal two years ago about deed restrictions be released to Steinberger. Beal said he could not release the opinion unless authorized by the council.

The council took no action to authorize the release.

Steinberger sent a letter notifying the council that his group has hired attorney Paul Gibbons, whose legal opinion is that the property’s use must continue to be for the boys and girls of Rockland as stipulated in the deed and only a court could change that stipulation.

“The city council and city manager are relying on your opinion that the deed conditions do not apply and that the land can be sold for private development,” Steinberger stated in an email sent to the city attorney. “If you are wrong, the cost of the demolition of the MacDougal school, some hundreds of thousands of dollars, will be borne by Rockland taxpayers and our tax rate will increase. Under these circumstances I think it is appropriate that you share your reasoning with the public.”

Pritchett said that because of the building’s poor condition, the city attorney’s opinion on deed restrictions was not relevant to the issue of whether the structure should be demolished.

Rockland has owned the former MacDougal School since the fall of 2010. The school was closed that June. The building was built in 1954 and has 24,000 square feet along with 4 acres of land.

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