CASTINE — At first glance, a recent town-and-gown meeting between Castine town officials and officials from Maine Maritime Academy may seem like back-page news. The two sides discussed the possibility of future collaboration along Castine’s waterfront. Nothing was decided, but both sides shared ideas.
“We try to meet institutionally once a month with the town selectmen, even if we don’t have a big agenda,” said William Brennan, president of Maine Maritime Academy.
But the meeting may be remarkable precisely because of its lack of headline-grabbing news. In 2009, tensions between Castine and MMA were so high that the two sides ended up in court.
The dispute centered around the college’s 2007 purchase of a historic Castine home, the Abbot House. Maine Maritime bought the home for the college president’s residence, but Castine argued that such a use violated the town’s zoning laws. Two separate court rulings found in favor of the school, but the experience left both sides wanting to find a new way forward.
“People were seeing it was a waste of energy to have these confrontations,” said Castine Town Manager Dale Abernethy.
Since then, there were some changes in the administrations of both town and college. Abernethy says the infusion of fresh perspective has helped both sides forge a new path.
One of the most visible hires has been Brennan to head the college. Both Brennan and his wife, Heather, have strong family ties to Castine. Her father was a physician in town and his father was part of the school’s first class in 1941.
“I live here. They are my neighbors,” said Brennan.
Castine town officials were pleased with Brennan’s hiring, and they credit him with helping ease tensions. Gus Basile, a Castine selectman, says Brennan’s familial stake in improving town and gown relations has helped everyone come together.
“I think it’s a tremendous asset,” Basile said. “It’s like family to them.”
The college’s desire to improve relations is more than symbolic. Though exempt from property taxes, Maine Maritime has been contributing some $130,000 annually to help with shared infrastructure costs. Also, Maine Maritime students have continued to be an asset to the town, Basile said. They volunteer on the fire department and on paramedic crews, and they always put their back into helping the town clean up after storms.
The relationship between a community and a college often ebbs and flows, said Tom Fountaine, president of the International Town and Gown Association. Rocky patches are inevitable, but the important thing is to find common ground and ways to communicate.
“I find that how these issues are resolved may depend on the level of the controversy and the commitment to the relationship that is present on both sides,” Fountaine wrote in an email.
Castine and Maine Maritime are now in preliminary discussions about how to improve their shared waterfront. The school wants to renovate its waterfront and that plan could include finding a way to replace an aging public restroom off campus. Castine officials say they would love to find a way to augment the waterfront for both town and college.
“It just doesn’t make sense for Maine Maritime Academy to do the planning of our waterfront without the town,” said Brennan. “It’s not rocket science. It’s collaboration.”