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Although the Wakefield Conservation Commission has denied the permit to build a new Vocational school on the hilltop forest, the Northeast Metro Tech (NEMT) School Building Committee continues to spend public funds to pursue this plan. This forest was once part of Breakheart Reservation and many thought it was protected. It is designated as core forest habitat, an ecosystem with pools, streams, endangered species and species of greatest conservation need or concern. It is bordered by Wakefield’s article 97 public land.
Why does NEMT plan to destroy a mature forest ecosystem to build a new school, costing over $320 million, when they have 30 acres of already developed land that could better accommodate the new school building, parking and athletic fields? Maybe the question is – who benefits?
This is a tale of two parcels – one too risky and expensive for private developers to bid on, covered in forest and ledge, and another cleared and nearly ready to build.
Wakefield has collaborated with NEMT to get a hockey rink and road in the forested hilltop since 2014. RFPs (request for proposals) were requested by the Town Administrator, Stephen Maio, and approved by the Town Selectmen over the years. The developer was to pay Wakefield and NEMT fees as the lessors. “The (owners) are interested in developing the site to include two sheets of ice … and a second means of egress onto Farm Street is required”. There were no bids. Why? What could it be except the expense and difficulty of a project requiring clear cutting, blasting and the possibility of consequences to abutters?
In February 2016, a pre-feasibility study for a new school rejected the forested hilltop location as too difficult, expensive and with poor access. In August 2016, Mr. Maio received approval from the selectmen to issue a Request for Qualifications to “determine if an ice hockey rink would be feasible in the proposed location.”
When NEMT was invited to the feasibility stage for a new school the school committee members formed the School Building Committee (SBC). Mr. Maio attended the SBC meeting in Jan 2019 and was a member by May 2019. The SBC hired PMA Consultants as project manager and DRA Associates as architects.
The SBC were told that the MSBA (MA School Building Authority) would not reimburse for a hockey rink, aquatic center or other facilities but the future hockey rink continued to be discussed in SBC meetings and shown in presentations. Early preferred options for the school were on the practice field behind the school (a site called “C.1”) and the current football field (“C.2”). By 2020, presentations to the SBC show the school on the site option called C.3. That plan puts the school on the forested hilltop and the rink on the current football field. With this plan the sites for the rink (in the forest) and the school (on current campus) were flipped. The highest site cost and the new road cost now belong to the public.
The C.3 plan requires clearing acres of trees and blasting down 30-35 feet of ledge for a building platform that will result in a 650 ft cliff along one side of the school. The new road requires blasting by Farm St for a road that will rise to 15-20 ft. The road from the school to Hemlock Rd will be too steep for a sidewalk. Those who park in the student lot will need to climb 1100 ft of ramps and stairs to get to the to the school daily.
The cost to destroy the forested hilltop is approximately $40M. According to the signed budget agreement, MSBA will only reimburse up to $8.3 M for site work. Why would the SBC want the district taxpayers (Chelsea, Malden, Melrose, North Reading, Reading, Revere, Saugus, Stoneham, Wakefield, Winchester, Winthrop, and Woburn) to pay so much for site costs, not educational costs, when there is no need to do it? This will be a punishing cost for some towns, especially Chelsea, Revere, Malden and Saugus.
Project documentation submitted to the MSBA show there are 2 viable alternatives that meet the same educational requirements on the lower campus, site C.1 on the current practice field behind the school and C.2 on the current football field. New fields will be built upon the footprint of the current school once it’s demolished. No one will say how they intend to use the current football field. SBC and project documentation show multiple references to a “Future Hockey Rink” presented and discussed in the months leading up to the SBC’s vote to approve the Hilltop Building Site (C.3) in December 2020. The future rink was clearly a factor in the site selection, as evidenced by the Final Evaluation of Alternatives prepared by PMA and submitted to the MSBA. It stated “The district gains additional athletic fields with this option [C.3] and maintains the potential of reserving the current football field/ track for future development as a hockey rink.” Again, when MSBA reviewers asked for justification for the high site costs related to the hilltop location, the project team responded “The new football field and track is replacing the existing field and track that is … being reserved for future recreational development (outside of this Project)”
By locating the school on the forested hilltop, 12 towns will pay to address the ledge and build a road. Stephen Maio, town administrator and David DiBarri, NEMT superintendent, can now get the rink and road they have wanted for years using new school funding. Developers can affordably build whatever “facility” they want on the current football field.
The SBC members have not acknowledged that there are better, safer site options for the new school. Residents have spoken of concerns about the safety and access to the new school, the 1100 ft system of stairs and ramps. The SBC responded that there will be liability insurance. Citizens requested an environmental review by the state. Since the SBC denies there are future plans to build a rink, the building plan does not trigger an environmental review. A new energy park is planned for the article 97 land abutting the school site that will leverage solar power generated from the school rooftop to benefit Wakefield customers. The Energy Park is described as part of the school project when the Wakefield Municipal Gas and Light Department wants voters to approve the use of the public land. It is described as not part of the school when they’re trying to avoid environmental review, which they have done.
There is no scrutiny or oversight. The SBC reports back to themselves while determining what is allowed to exist and spending hundreds of millions of public funds.
There is a conflict of interest law, requiring all municipal employees to act in the public interest. The NEMT SBC has a responsibility for all 12 towns, yes? I do not see stewardship, responsibility, or ethics. The school site had been decided without a word about the location on the ballot to fund the school in January 2022, see the Reading Post article “Why-didnt-the-public-know-about-the-plan-to-build-the-new-voke”.
There is something called a Right to Honest Services. It is about transparency, deception and a breach of a fiduciary duty. Why is new school funding being used for this long desired rink and road?
The NEMT project team claims that the school property is private land. It is public land which is why the public will pay all costs. The loss of this forest will be ours too. There has been extensive outreach to Massachusetts’s state-level legislative leaders. Many representatives that claim to prioritize the environment support blasting away this core forest and wetland habitat.
The safety issues posed by the ramp design and lack of sidewalks within the campus cannot be remedied. Students will lose access to the baseball, football and practice fields while the hill is blasted and dewatered and rock is crushed for months behind the existing school. Voters were told this site option was the least disruptive. Wakefield’s beautiful native forest will turn into a rock quarry with a parking lot. Maintenance for this school site will always cost more. That cost will not be for a better school. It will be for a facility and road that Wakefield and NEMT have sought for years.
There are better, safer, less expensive and less destructive site options. Please share this information and contact your town.
New school site plan pics: tinyurl.com/NEMTSchoolSitePics
All citations for this letter: tinyurl.com/WakefieldRinkCitations
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