Appeals delay Andover school project
The alleged use of fuzzy math and faulty science has put construction of a new elementary school in Andover on suspension.
Appeals recently filed by several abutters of the proposed new Bancroft Elementary School over flooding concerns have the potential to delay the project by at least two years, according to town officials.
At issue are the conditions approved in August by the town’s Conservation Commission regarding flood mitigation, storm water runoff, and replacement of wetlands that would be affected by the construction of the new school and the proposed West Knoll Road driveway extension.
Four separate appeals have been filed with the state’s Department of Environmental Protection saying the commission’s order of conditions is not in compliance with the Wetlands Protection Act because it did not sufficiently address potential problems during and after construction.
Two of the abutters, who had an independent engineer review the commission’s order, also filed a lawsuit in superior court claiming that the commission’s conditions violate the town’s wetlands bylaw because incorrect engineering calculations that limited the flooding impact to areas near the project site.
“Specific scientific and mathematical calculations were absolutely wrong with respect to the drainage and the flooding,’’ said Peter E. Flynn, the Saugus-based attorney representing abutters Dana Willis and Michael R. Noakes in their state and superior court appeals. “We want it to be based on good science. We want to make sure where we don’t end up with a project that five abutters are screaming because they’re getting flooded because of some improper drainage system that went forward at their expense.’’
Because of the appeals, the School Building Committee voted earlier this month to suspend construction work, which would have begun this month with the clearing of trees to make way for the driveway extension, said School Committee chairwoman Annie Gilbert, who also sits on the Building Committee. She said it is frustrating that the abutters chose to appeal after the Conservation Commission’s approval of the conditions, instead of having their concerns addressed during the three months the commission held meetings on the matter.
“The Conservation Commission had an independent peer review of our plan, and that indicated that we had met all of the conditions we needed to meet to be in line with the Wetlands Protection Act,’’ Gilbert said. “So we never set out to make a plan that would have a bad impact on the site or on neighbors, and we feel we had a very thorough process and we have a strong plan.’’
Approval from the Conservation Commission was the last step before the start of construction, which school and town officials were eager to commence. The new $44.7 million kindergarten to fifth grade school would replace the existing Bancroft and Shawsheen elementary schools, both of which have been deemed structurally deficient and costly to maintain.
The 41-year-old Bancroft School, which has had structural problems since the 1970s, has absorbed $2 million in repairs over the last six years. School Department officials have estimated that Shawsheen needs $7 million worth of repairs. Plans called for the demolition of the current Bancroft school and closure of the Shawsheen once the new Bancroft was completed.
A debt exclusion override, which temporarily increases property taxes, was approved in January for the new school. The Massachusetts School Building Authority is slated to reimburse the town $16.8 million of the total cost of the school, which was on track to open for the start of the 2013 school year.
An authority spokesman said officials there are aware of the appeals and that the town is not in danger of losing its reimbursement funds.
Still, the delay could have a financial impact on the project because of fluctuating construction costs, said Mark B. Johnson, School Building Committee chairman.
“When we go out to bid, we don’t know what the [construction price] environment will be,’’ Johnson said. “And the impact of maintaining the current Bancroft School, there is an ongoing cost involved in that. It’s one of the most expensive schools in Andover to operate.’’
Johnson said he is disappointed with the timing of the appeals, stressing that more than 125 meetings on the project were held in the past two years.
“We tried to make sure that the neighbors and the public had as much input as possible,’’ he said. “Once the appeals are resolved, we’ll move forward as quickly as we can.’’
A state Environmental Protection official had a walk-through of the site last week with town and school building officials, as well as the appellants.
Town Counsel Thomas Urbelis said the town asked Environmental Protection officials to expedite the visit as part of the appeal process, in which the department would issue a superseding order of conditions that would either affirm, reverse, or change the Conservation Commission’s order.
He added that a two-year or more delay would be a worst case scenario, and hoped the superior court process doesn’t take an excessive amount of time.
Conservation Division director Robert Douglas said the project’s architectural firm reviewed the independent engineering report commissioned by the two abutters and “found them completely groundless in many points.’’ The town submitted the firm’s 40-page response to Environmental Protection officials for their review.
“The appellants were simply mistaken on quite a few different things,’’ Douglas said. “We feel our order is strong and we would hate to see these appeals delay what everybody hopes would be a school.’’
Flynn, who hired the independent engineer on behalf of the abutters, said the town scrambled to issue a response to the Department of Environmental Protection the day before the site visit, and that his office plans on filing a response to state officials by the end of next week.