System requires university to work with Wolfe’s Neck Farm foundation

University of Southern Maine officials can move forward with a plan to sell or transfer the Stone House in Freeport, but on the condition that they work with Wolfe’s Neck Farm Foundation on the fate of the John Calvin Stevens-designed mansion, system officials voted Tuesday.

“We want to be completely transparent on this as we move forward,” said Richard Campbell, chief financial officer of the University of Southern Maine.

USM received the Stone House as part of a larger gift from the family of Eleanor Houston Smith in 1985. It’s now used about 40 days a year, primarily to house a master’s program in creative writing.

But earlier this year, USM officials, facing a financial crisis, announced plans to sell it in order to save annual operating costs and $8.5 million in needed updates.

The finance and facilities committee of the system’s board of trustees put off a vote on the matter in late June after Smith’s daughter, Sallie Smith, questioned the sale of the house, saying the decision was up to the foundation for Wolfe’s Neck Farm, where the house is located.

The committee approved an amended proposal unanimously Tuesday, with new language that makes it clear the university must work with the foundation to dispose of the house, which the town of Freeport assessed at $1.15 million.

The finance committee members approved the proposal for a “sale or other transfer” of the property “following a public engagement process and subject to the written concurrence of the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Wolfe’s Neck Farm Foundation.”

Any final agreement also needs the approval of university system financial and legal officials.

Campbell said he and other college and system officials have met with Wolfe’s Neck Farm Foundation officials to discuss Stone House.

“(The meetings) gave us the opportunity to clear up some confusion and to assure that everyone was on the same page,” Campbell said, noting that Foundation Board President Tom Whelan wrote a letter in support of the proposal.

“The Board takes its role in directing the appropriate disposition of the Stone House very seriously and appreciates the collaborative and communicative approach currently being taken by USM/UMS,” Whelan wrote on Aug. 5. “Going forward we look forward to working in concert with USM/UMS to protect the historic nature of this building and together with USM/UMS, utilize an appropriate community engagement plan that includes key stakeholders.”

In 1985, the Smiths gave USM the Stone House and the 600-acre-plus Wolfe’s Neck Farm. In 1997, the farm was transferred to its current operators, the nonprofit Wolfe’s Neck Farm Foundation.

The idea of the sale was first raised this spring as USM announced plans to lay off staff members and cut academic programs to close a $14 million gap in the university’s $134 million budget.

Campbell said Tuesday that it could take as long as a year to determine what will happen to Stone House, and that campus officials will keep the trustees briefed.

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