9/25/2013 2:00:00 PM Lincoln Academy Makes Case For Dormitory
By J.W. Oliver
Lincoln Academy presented its case for a new dormitory for its boarding program to the Newcastle Board of Appeals before a large audience Sept. 23.
The high school needs the Board of Appeals to approve a variance for the project because the height of the proposed building exceeds 40 feet, the limit in the Newcastle Land Use Ordinance.
A variance provides official permission for an applicant to bypass zoning regulations, but Maine law and town regulations limit the Board of Appeals' authority to grant a variance.
The Board of Appeals did not act on the variance request, except to agree to schedule a public hearing for a future date.
Lincoln Academy Trustee Karen Moran, an attorney, argued the school's case, calling several school officials as witnesses.
According to Moran, Lincoln Academy meets the requirements for a variance because, as the Newcastle ordinance states, the "strict application" of the rules "would result in undue hardship" to the school.
The school argues the building meets the "spirit" of the regulations because the front of the building would stand 39 feet, 10 inches high with only 35 feet visible from Academy Hill Road.
The school plans to build the dormitory into a hill. The back of the building would measure 58 feet from the basement floor to the peak, in excess of the 40-foot limit.
The 66-foot Ryder Science Wing, which came before the 40-foot rule, would actually exceed the height of the dormitory.
The dormitory would stand 275 feet from Academy Hill Road, far more distant than Hall House, at 45 feet; or the Ryder Science Wing, at 60.
Lincoln Academy Associate Head for Finance and Strategic Planning Margot Riley testified about the financial need for the dormitory and the school's hopes for the boarding program.
The state sets the maximum tuition Lincoln Academy can charge local towns to send their students, currently $8873 per student plus a 5-10 percent charge for maintenance and capital improvements.
The Department of Education expects the maximum tuition figure, which has been flat for four years, to remain flat for another five years, Riley said.
The tuition falls short of the $11,000 to $12,000 the school spends to educate each student, Riley said. The school makes up the difference with endowment income, fundraising, and private tuition.
Lincoln Academy currently enrolls 496 local students, but just 472 "full-time equivalent" students.
The school counts some students in vocational programs as part-time because it can only charge two-thirds of the tuition rate for those students, Riley said.
The figures represent a significant drop in enrollment since the 2005-2006 academic year, when the school hit its peak enrollment of 622 students and 594 full-time equivalent students, she said.
The drop in local enrollment translates to a decrease in revenue of more than $1 million a year. "It's very significant," Riley said, and the school plans to see enrollment drop by another 75 students by 2020.
"Somewhere around 400, give or take, is where we expect to end up," Riley said.
The school points to changing demographics in Lincoln County and the U.S. as factors contributing to the decrease in local enrollment.
Without a profitable boarding program, the school would have to cut everything except what the state requires it to teach - mathematics, reading, writing and U.S. history.
"We would lose everything else," Riley said, and the school would struggle to fund even essential programs.
A boarding program with about 80 private-tuition students would bring the school a profit of approximately $500,000 per year, which it would re-invest in the school, Riley said.
The school already has 33 boarding students in a 24-student dormitory, a small, temporary dormitory and a home-stay program.
The school also reviewed its reasons for the design and location of the 54-student dormitory it plans to build beyond the school track.
The school owns property on the opposite side of Academy Hill Road, but considers the area too far away from the rest of the campus.
"Where students live needs to be as close to the rest of the facilities as possible," Director of Resident Life Ken Stevenson said.
School officials addressed design changes that would shrink the building, such as expanding outward or removing a floor, but rejected each as financially or physically impractical.
Jonathan Hull, an attorney and neighbor to the project who has been its most vocal opponent to date, rebutted some of the school's arguments in a brief public comment period.
"The question is, is this dormitory, at its 58 feet, essential to a reasonable use of this property?" Hull said. "I find that a little hard to argue, given that Lincoln Academy has existed for more than 200 years in this area without that facility."
Hull acknowledged the benefits the dormitory could provide.
"If you're looking for absolutely what's best for Lincoln Academy, their arguments make a lot of sense, but that's not your standard," he said.
Paul Mathews, another neighbor and opponent of the project, suggested the school could build the dormitory on one of its athletic fields.
The school could build new fields in the vicinity of the tennis courts, Mathews said, which it plans to do eventually anyway.
Other residents defended the school and its plans for the dormitory.
"This is for the good of Lincoln Academy and this is good for the town of Newcastle and for the majority of its residents ... the working-class people," Norman Hunt said. "Let's have some common sense. Let's watch out for the school."
Katharina Keoughan lives in downtown Newcastle and regularly walks on the school track.
"I think it would be an asset ... what we're actually going to see is less than 40 (feet) and I think it was very well designed," Keoughan, who sits on the Newcastle Design Review Board, said.
The Board of Appeals did not address Hull's appeal of a Design Review Board vote to approve the dormitory because the board first has to review the color of the building.