BELFAST, Maine — Last winter, tempers flared, insults were lobbed, lawsuits were threatened and scary scenarios were painted, all because a group of young Waldo County developers wanted to convert one of Belfast’s old brick schoolhouses into rental apartments.
Nine months later, all is quiet — including the Peirce School on Church Street.
After the Stockton Springs-based developers withdrew their application to convert the school into eight apartments in March, the building’s owner, Midcoast Development LLC, kept it on the market.
On Monday, its listing price was dropped from $329,000 to $289,000, but its continued vacancy feels like something of a missed opportunity for many in the community, including Wayne Marshall, director of the city’s code and planning department.
“It’s pretty common practice for former schools to be used as apartments,” he said. “And the longer a building lies vacant and likely unheated, the ability to restore a building and renovate it to a productive use stops. It would be really sad to see the Peirce School become one of those buildings … I think it’s a real disappointment that the school continues to lie fallow.”
But the 1915 two-story building, which features huge windows, about 7,000 square feet of space above ground level and old-fashioned charm including high ceilings, wood floors and more, also poses some challenges. It is under contract rezoning, which means that city officials would need to sign off on any major renovation project. It also likely needs some work done, according to Declan O’Connor, a construction expert familiar with the property.
Still, none of that should be insurmountable.
“The numbers are not impossible,” he said. “What’s impossible are the neighbors. A lot of people got gun shy because the neighbors were so vociferous.”
A fraught history
After public school students left the Peirce School in 2003, the building was used as a music school for a time, then was sold at auction in 2013 for $220,000. Buyer Mark Crockett of Midcoast Development, LLC, used the building as a medical marijuana growhouse until putting it up for sale in 2018, initially asking nearly $400,000.
When Reservoir Ventures LLC, put forth a plan to renovate it and turn it into rental apartments, it sounded like a great fit for a city and region that seems to perpetually be in a housing crunch. Some neighbors, however, thought otherwise. The school is in a tiny residential neighborhood, just across the street from a historic mansion, the James P. White House, which recently was listed on the market for $1 million. Some neighbors were outspoken about their concerns that turning the property into rental units would lead to increased traffic, noise, lights and generally bring down both property values and the neighborhood.
Efforts this week to speak to partners from Reservoir Ventures were not immediately successful.
During the debate, some neighbors had mentioned the possibility of filing lawsuits to stop the development plan, but ultimately, no suits were filed.
Even so, the issue was fraught and came to a head at several Planning Board and City Council meetings as well as in the opinion pages of the Republican Journal newspaper. Two letters against it, including one purportedly from two southern Maine housing advocates, were signed by people who may have been fictitious.
Allison Beards, who lives close to the Walkers and the Peirce School on High Street, said the opposition to the development compelled her to speak up in favor of it.
“I think the thing that bothered me the most was the use of the local paper and letters to the editor from people that didn’t exist,” she said, adding that she thinks the project was a missed opportunity. “It would have been great apartments. It would have been an asset to the neighborhood.”
Christopher Hyk, a Church Street resident who opposed the development, said he feels the neighbor’s concerns were mischaracterized by city councilors and others. For example, he said he did not actually liken renters to lepers, a rumor that was bandied about at one point.
“Every time you go to City Council, it’s like going to the Jerry Springer Show. Anything can happen,” Hyk said.
Highest and best use
Although the issue of the Peirce School divided the community for a time, it does seem as if people have come together over the hope that the building will find new life, and soon.
“It should be used in the neighborhood, rather than sitting unused,” Penney Read, a real estate agent with the Masiello Group, who is showing the school, said. “Turning it into multi-unit housing, in terms of the community, would be its highest and best use.”
Despite last winter’s debate over the property, in her experience, the Church Street neighbors have been great.
“We’ve had people for showings and the neighbors say, ‘please move in,’” she said. “I think it is a very friendly and welcoming neighborhood, as far as I can see.”
This story has been corrected to update the name for the James P. White House.