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by Anne Berleant
In 2007—a period some view as bleak times for town/gown relations—Maine Maritime Academy purchased the Abbott House on Battle Avenue for use as a residence for the academy president, who at that time was Len Tyler.
The house belonged to Deborah Pulliam and was left to her brother after Pulliam’s death in 2007; he promptly sold it to MMA in September 2007 for $1.45 million.
Responding to community concerns for MMA’s long-range plans for the building and its 6.2 acres of land at the time of the sale, Tyler said “the current administration has no short- or long-term plans for development of the land.”
The Abbott House, built in 1802 in the Federal style, is one of Castine’s oldest historic homes and lies outside the Institutional Development Zone, which encompasses the MMA campus. Town officials, and many citizens, viewed MMA’s intended use of the house as a violation of the Castine Zoning Ordinance.
A week after the sale, the town selectmen voted 3-0 to initiate “declaratory judgment and other appropriate legal action” against MMA, and on October 16, 2007, a special town meeting vote approved transferring $20,000 from the town surplus account “to fund anticipated legal fees required to enforce the municipal zoning ordinance.”
The legal standing of the town over MMA’s purchase of the Abbott House was not clear-cut. The academy could buy property outside of the Institutional Development Zone, but not engage such property in institutional use. The question that faced the Hancock County Superior Court, when the case came to trial in January 2009, was whether using the Abbott House to house the president was considered “institutional use.”
In his decision denying the town’s suit, Justice Kevin Cuddy stated that “If the Abbott House is used solely as a residence then its use is not institutional. A zoning ordinance restricts uses, not ownership.”
However, Cuddy added that the town’s concern over MMA potentially expanding their use of the Abbott House is “well-founded.”
The Town of Castine appealed the decision, which ultimately was affirmed in a September 2012 Maine Supreme Court decision. The town spent over $16,000 in attorney fees associated with the suit against MMA.
Between the time the selectmen filed suit and the Superior Court decision, members of the community formed two committees. The first, spearheaded by Bill Prindle, was MMAwatch.org, a website dedicated to keeping the community informed on the Abbott House sale, which is now defunct. The second, Castine Citizen’s Action Group, headed by Michael Coughlin, wanted open communication with the upper level of the academy administration.
Toward that end, Coughlin’s group sought for a community voice on the MMA board of trustees, which, to date, has not been awarded.
However, one of Coughlin’s suggestions has come to pass: that the academy and town government meet on a more regular basis than quarterly town/gown meetings.
In their joint 2010-11 town report, Town Manager Dale Abernethy and the selectmen noted the “important development this past year…of improved communication and cooperation between the Castine community and the Maine Maritime Academy.”
And while the town has lost approximately $5,600 in annual tax revenue from the Abbott House, the board of trustees has voted to contribute toward public utility costs and has paid a share of roadway construction costs for the past two years.
Town/gown meetings have been held monthly since Bill Brennan began his presidency in 2010, and several members of the academy administration, including Brennan, serve on town committees, most notably the Comprehensive Plan Implementation Committee and its subcommittees.
At a town/gown meeting around one year ago, selectman David Unger noted the brief agenda, saying “When we don’t have a lot to talk about, it’s a good sign.”
MMA students regularly volunteer to coach pee-wee league and Adams School sports and MMA co-sponsored “The Bowdoin on the Greenland Patrol” exhibit at the Castine Historical Society.
President Brennan moved into the Abbott House with his wife in July of 2010 and does not use the residence for social events, according to Michael Whetston, Director of Public Affairs. “All social events have been held on the first floor of the Wyman House.”