Planning board recommends increased building height for new middle school

By Susan Mustapich | Nov 14, 2017
Photo by: Susan Mustapich SAD 28 officials are asking for a zoning change to allow the back portion of the new middle school a height of 35 feet.

CAMDEN — The Camden Planning Board voted Nov. 9 to move to the Select Board a proposed zoning change to increase the maximum building height allowed on the Camden-Rockport Middle School property on Knowlton Street.

The three voting Planning Board members, Jeff Senders, Richard Bernhard and Rosie Curtis, agreed that their vote was a recommendation to the Select Board in favor of increasing the building height on the middle school property to 38 feet.

Board members Lowrie Sargent, who has long served as chairman, and Mark Siegenthaler recused themselves from sitting on the board, and from voting, during the public hearing. Sargent submitted an email as a Camden resident, which was read by Senders during the public comment period, and took a position against the zoning change. Seigenthaler spoke during the public comment period, and questioned the change, but did not come out against it.

Senders disclosed that he works for Gartley and Dorskey, and that it was up to the applicant to request his recusal. He said he did not believe he had a conflict. The applicant did not request him to withdraw from the discussion and vote.

The middle school property is located in the "traditional village district," which has a height limit of 30 feet. The proposed zoning change requests a 38-foot height limit on properties in this district "on which public schools existed as of 2017."

The new middle school building would be 35 feet high at its tallest point, which is lower than the height of the existing middle school, according to Oak Point Associates, the firm chosen to design the school.

The existing CRMS facility consists of multiple buildings constructed at different times, and some of the buildings exceed the current height limit. The Mary E. Taylor building, built in the 1920s, exceeds the height standard, at 41 feet. The school's gymnasium is 31 feet high.

The new middle school building would be set back from Knowlton Street, while the current school building is close to the street.  The Knowlton Street side of the new school includes an auditorium and cafeteria, where the planners envision community functions will be held.

Oak Point Associates

Tyler Barter of Oak Point Associates explained Nov. 9 that the roof lines of the front  of the new middle school building closest to Knowlton Street are in the 22-foot height range. The taller part of the building, a three-story wing of classrooms with a height of 35 feet, is be located at the back of the building, where the property slopes downhill.

Barter showed views of the new building from various angles, including several points on Knowlton Street, the bus loop, and the back of the parking lot.

Will Gartley, chairman of the Middle School Building Committe, said the request to increase the height limit on the school property would make Camden's zoning ordinance consistent with what has been on the property for many years. He explained that Oak Point had presented a drawing of the building that conformed with current zoning height limits, but that this version contained a stairway within the main corridor of the building.

The need for a stairway in a building that meets the 30-foot height limit is explained in an Oct. 6 memo from Oak Point Associates, "To meet the current height restriction, the rear classroom wing of the building would need to be lowered, resulting in stairs within the main corridor. These stairs will make the corridor more difficult to monitor, make accessibility more challenging and increase the overall construction cost of the project. The rear portion of the building is where the school's academic wing will be located, and is planned to have a maximum height of 35 feet at its tallest point."

Gartley said Middle School Building Committee members, school district administration and teachers asked for a design that would not require stairs in the main corridor. He said the school design comes from many community meetings, and that the middle school design committee and the architects listened to many people, including residents of Knowlton Street.

Public comment

Senders read two emails from residents who could not attend the meeting.

Adam and Lee Kohlstrom, Knowton street residents, wrote to voice their support for the proposed zoning change.

Sargent wrote that he was opposed to increasing the building height of the middle school. He stated that the problem was created by the architect, that the zoning had been known for many years, and that the building should have been designed with the zoning in mind. He said every Planning Board decision sets precedents for future decisions, and he was concerned that this would invite architects to challenge zoning requirements in the future. Sargent said two zoning changes approved by the board in the recent past involved the Camden Hospital and the American Boathouse, old buildings in need of renovation that could not maintain maintain their original use.

Sargent also spoke against the zoning change, and recused himself from the Planning Board during the board's initial review of the middle school site application Nov. 2.

John Lewis, Knowlton Street resident, is a former School Board member, and more recently has been involved in the planning for a new middle school for a number of years. He said there has been community input throughout the process. Lewis said he is excited about the new school. "This is way more attractive than the building we have there now. It's safer. Knowlton Street traffic will be alleviated to some extent. I think the architects have done a great job. I appreciate allowing this to go forward for the good of the kids and the community."

Emily LeBlanc-McConnell, who has worked with special needs children for most of her career, said she joined the Middle School Building Committee in September because she is concerned with accessibility. "For me, stairs in the middle of a hallway sends a message to students, that the building was not designed with all the students in mind," she said. "The way bullying is prevented is open sight lines. When a student has to divert from the flow in order to access part of the building, it separates them. I think this zoning change is important to prevent this from happening."

Joe Russillo, an architect with a business in downtown Camden and a member of the Middle School Building Committee, spoke in support of the zoning change. "It seems to me that this is a correction of an error that was made, some time ago, rather than asking for a gift. To ask that the new school come in below that seems silly to me," he said. Russillo added, "From a logistical, rule-by-law perspective, this is a correction of a mistake that was done a long time ago, rather than something unreasonable."

Seigenthaler said he owns a property on Knowlton Street across from the middle school. He explained that after seeing all the designs showing the proposed building from multiple views, "my mind is put at ease a little more than when I first got here. My concern is the integrity of the zoning ordinance. What happens as we go through the design, and a decision is made to make the front of the building 38 feet high? I appreciate how they have designed the building to maintain the integrity of Knowlton Street, but how do we protect that, and maintain that?"

Maria Libby, SAD 28 school superintendent and a Camden resident, said, "I hope this Planning Baord doesn't make a short sighted decision, to not recommend this change. A decision here sets a precedent for public schools in the town of Camden. It doesn't set a precedent for what  architects ask the Planning Board for.

Libby believes that while the decision to allow the zoning height increase for the new middle school doesn't impact the entire Traditional Village Zone, it will impact generations of students who will be walking through this building for the next 75 years.

"It will be thousands of people who are impacted by the decision that is made here. I keep hearing references to architects, what's going to prevent another architect from doing something. To liken this to any other residential building that will go before the Planning Board is not really a fair analogy. It doesn't set a precedent for much, except for public schools."

"The arguments against this have been fairly short-sighted and shallow," she said, "and may be personal, against people involved in this project. A little bit of logic goes a long way towards what should be recommended."

Mark Ratner spoke in favor of increasing the height restriction for the purpose of building the new middle school. He cautioned against reactive and fear-based reasoning, and referred to the middle school plans proposed by the building committee as proactive. "To turn down this height increase because of fear is the wrong message," he said.

Planning Board discussion

Bernhard thanked Barter of Oak Point for bringing the three-dimensional views of the building from different perspectives along Knowlton St. He believes the design is attractive and blends in with the neighborhood, and that the larger classroom wing at the back of the site is appropriate for a school building.

Bernhard said he was struck by the fact that the River Business District, which allows 50 feet of elevation, abuts the school site.

"The business transitional river district is not only adjacent to the school site, it abuts the school site, and allows a 50-foot-high building to be built there." He asked whether people believe a zoning ordinance is cast in stone, or an evolving document.

Bernard referred to the Planning Board's recent work on zoning amendments for the Camden Hospital and American Boathouse, and said he believes the zoning ordinance is an "organic ordinance that changes over time."

Senders first read the description of the Traditional Village District, which includes both governmental and cultural facilities. "The purpose of the ordinance is to maintain the small-scale residential structures, compatible residential-scale businesses and distinctive village design," he read.

"From a design perspective, this is a governmental and cultural facility," Senders said.  "We want to be inclusive of all people and all populations, and the Americans with Disabilities Act is a very important part of future  design in all of our infrastructure. To not consider ADA in designing a school is not the right way to move forward."

Curtis agreed with Senders' remarks regarding ADA requirements. Considering the increase in building height to eliminate the need for stairs in the building's central corridor, "For any kid who has any kind of physical disability, they already have the cards stacked against them every day," she said.  "Everything they do is harder for them.This is the fundamental reason for the height change."

Curtis recognized that those who are opposed to the zoning change also have serious long-term concerns. At the same time, she believes that if challenges to the current zoning ordinance were brought to the Planning Board, "based on this project in the future, we have very clear reasons why we made these decisions. It's a community building, a cultural building. To get into a lift to travel four feet defies common sense."

She said that as a design professional and a planning person she believes in the power of principle, while at the same time, as a parent and an architect, she believes the design without the stairs is "a better design."

"There are 400 kids a year who will have to deal with this inconvenience daily," she said. Curtis also spoke about the use of the building as an emergency shelter during a power outage, and accessibility for community members.

It was announced Nov. 14  that the Planning Board will discuss an amendment to the height adjustment request at the Nov. 16 meeting, which takes place at 5 p.m. in the Washington Street Conference Room.

Next steps in the process of changing the zoning height restriction on the middle school property on Knowlton Street include Select Board discussion, public hearings and a public vote.

Comments (2)
Posted by: Barry Douglas Morse | Nov 15, 2017 23:00

In principle, I believe some form of relief from the current 30-foot height restriction makes sense.  On the other hand, I also think concerns about how someone might interpret a simple 38-foot height restriction 10 years from now are valid.


The key might be in how the ordinance is worded. For example, it's possible to write an ordinance that restricts a minimum percentage of the building footprint to 30 and the remainder to 38.  One could specify that the height of sections closest to the road must be at the lower limit.  Or it could be expressed that no roof line may exceed a height that is proscribed by an X degree angle projecting from the lot line back (so a roof line 50 from the road would naturally be lower than roof lines farther away).  That helps ensure that buildings do not loom over their neighbors.


Just a suggestion.

Barry Morse

Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Nov 14, 2017 15:53

Having lived with an elevator in a Seniors apartment I attest to the fact that during storms we had power outages and people stuck in the elevator lasting agonizing hours. Children would be traumatized in such conditions. One floor would alleviate such situations and I feel a savings of repairs to any existing elevator motors would relieve the taxpayers immensely.

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