554 Lexington Street/High School
The following comments were submitted to the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act Office (MEPA) on June 17, 2020 in response to the May 15, 2020 Draft Environmental Impact Report. Please note that the Waltham Land Trust Board includes a City Councillor, a member of the Waltham Historical Commission, and a member of the School Building Committee. These individuals recused themselves from the discussion and development of this response. For a PDF of this letter, click here.
Dear Assistant Director Czepiga:
In accordance with 301 CMR 11.08, the Waltham Land Trust (WLT) writes to submit the organization’s comments to the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) concerning the plans for the Waltham High School dated May 15, 2020. After carefully reviewing the DEIR, WLT is pleased to see that efforts have been made to further reduce the amount of land developed and the overall environmental impact of the project.
Specifically, WLT would like to acknowledge the following measures which it views as positive aspects of the new preferred alternative plans:
- Elimination of wetland alterations and alterations to the intermittent stream
- Reduced total acreage of altered land
- Reduced total number of parking spaces
- Reduced total impervious surfaces
WLT has generally supported the location of the High School at 554 Lexington Street throughout this process. This was in large part because the organization recognizes both the unique and urgent need for a new high school, and because it became clear as more information emerged over the past several years that this land was at high risk of being sold to a private developer – an outcome which could have had an even more detrimental environmental impact. WLT also supports the City’s desire to repurpose the existing high school to meet other educational infrastructure needs so that further development of Waltham’s open space can be prevented.
WLT continues to have concerns about the overall environmental impact of adding the six acres of the open space parcel, referred to as “Jericho II” in the DEIR, without further mitigating measures. When WLT last addressed this issue, it was in early March 2020 as the Waltham City Council was preparing to vote to transfer the property to the School Department. This transfer was discussed with minimal notice to the community and largely in executive session.
Because City Solicitor Cervone has named WLT specifically in his April 27, 2020 Memorandum regarding whether Article 97 applies to the Jericho II parcel, we feel compelled to address that issue briefly here.
Both Article 97 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights and MGL c. 30 § 61 recognize that negative environmental impacts of development in a community also negatively impact the people who live there. This is especially true with regard to those members of the community who are marginalized or have the fewest resources and thus more acutely feel the effects of environmental damage, whether it comes in the form of losing access to safe public woodlands and green space and their attendant benefits, or bearing the brunt of the negative consequences of climate change.
For these reasons Massachusetts has chosen to give its residents rights, under the Commonwealth’s Constitution, to the quality of life that clean water and open space provide. Accordingly, the law requires the use of all practicable means and measures to minimize damage to the environment in projects such as this one. Article 97’s “no net loss” policy also requires that when one parcel of open space is developed it is replaced by protecting other land in the community of equal conservation value.
Reasonable minds can differ regarding the interpretation of Smith v. City of Westfield, 478 Mass. 49 (2017), and whether Article 97 protection applies to the Jericho II parcel. There are many reasons that WLT has suggested in good faith that this is the case – including, but not limited to, the City holding the property out as protected open space to the public, the public using it continuously for that purpose since its acquisition, and the inclusion of the parcel as protected open space in a whole host of City plans upon which it relies for many different purposes, including grant applications. Indeed, in the Project Narrative of the Environmental Notification Form (ENF) for the high school itself, section 2, page 1, SMMA states “[t]he building is proposed to be sited in the southwestern quadrant of the property, adjacent to the Jericho Hill conservation land, such that the footprint of development may be optimized, and open space preserved… (emphasis added).”
In light of the above, WLT was disheartened to see that the DEIR reflects no plans to permanently preserve six acres of open space of similar conservation value in exchange for the Jericho II parcel. WLT would encourage that MEPA require this step, in the spirit of Article 97’s “no net loss” requirements. If development of the Jericho II parcel is truly essential to the high school moving forward, those mitigating measures are the right thing to do, even if there may be a difference of opinion as to what is strictly legally required. The law sets a floor but not a ceiling in this regard.
After careful consideration, however, WLT ultimately believes the appropriate manner to address the majority of its concerns is outside the MEPA review process. While we wholeheartedly reject Attorney Cervone’s characterization of the organization’s position – particularly as by his definition the majority of Waltham’s open space is entirely vulnerable to development – WLT intends to make its case to the Waltham community directly, rather than in this forum.
There are many reasons WLT has reached this conclusion. To say we find ourselves in a different world now than we were at the beginning of March is at best a massive understatement. WLT recognizes that our community is feeling exhausted, hurt, isolated, and divided. Yet another protracted disagreement about the land involved with this project, in addition to all the other serious issues Waltham currently faces, is simply not in our community’s or WLT membership’s overall best interests. WLT also recognizes that with state and local budgetary constraints expected to result from the pandemic the need to move this project forward has grown ever more urgent.
This is a time when unity must carry the day. We hope that all parties involved will likewise commit to finding a more harmonious way forward. This is not about choosing between supporting conservation or kids. WLT is working every day towards the same goal as the City and other proponents of this project: a better future for Waltham’s children.
September 25, 2019 update
The Waltham Land Trust continues to closely follow the proposed plans for the new Waltham High School. The following was submitted to the Waltham Mayor, School Committee, School Building Committee, SMMA, and Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) office on September 25, 2019. The Land Trust also continues to be actively involve in the MEPA review process at the site.
Just over a year ago, the Waltham City Council voted to approve the acquisition of 554 Lexington Street. The decision to acquire the property came after lengthy discussion of multiple potential sites by the Waltham School Building Committee, city officials, and the community. The Waltham Land Trust affirmatively opposed certain proposed sites such as the Storer Conservation Land, Paine Estate, and the Chesterbrook Woods, that would have required development of substantial acreage already designated and used as community green space, directly contrary to WLT’s mission. With regard to 554 Lexington Street, multiple potential options were presented. Before taking a position, the Land Trust had been awaiting more information about how the City intends to proceed in order to ensure the organization was fully informed.
More details concerning the proposed plans for the high school have now been released and WLT is now able to take a more definite position. First, one of WLT’s core principles is that whenever possible, development should be concentrated in area and involve the reuse of previously developed land, rather than the destruction of open space. Second, the Land Trust wants to encourage that all development in Waltham also be built in accordance with the best environmental practices available and strategically located to maximize preservation of the site’s natural resources. These principles remain true with regard to the new high school.
Third, the Land Trust’s prior concerns about the potential loss of natural habitat surrounding the border of the parcel have not changed. The property located at 554 Lexington Street is approximately 46 acres, about 16 of which have already been developed and about 30 acres of which currently remain in their natural state. The undeveloped acres include mature forests, steep rocky hillsides, sunny outcroppings, a small wetland and intermittent stream, and lowbush blueberries and lady slipper orchids throughout. These acres also compose vital habitat for Waltham’s wildlife. As we have stated previously, WLT would enthusiastically support a high school that provides for the conservation of this important natural buffer between the campus and the surrounding area, but similarly opposes plans that do not include conservation as an important priority.
There is a significant difference between the current range of plans offered with regards to how much ledge blasting and destruction of natural habitat will be required. However, the environmentally conscious options that minimize ledge blasting and destruction of natural resources also are the most cost-effective. The Land Trust writes to strongly advocate in favor of plans that will require the least amount of blasting and ledge removal, preservation of as many trees as possible to promote shade and climate recapture, reduction of parking and encouraging use of alternate transportation, promotion of connections to potential future trail connections and outdoor classrooms, and shielding the air conditioners, generators, and other equipment on top of building so they are less visible from future trails. WLT also strongly encourages that the plans take a comprehensive approach to integrating connections between the property and surrounding trails into the design.
The difference between a high school that requires development of 25 acres versus one that requires development of 30 acres, or even 28 acres, is significant in both the high-quality woodland acres lost and monetary cost to the public. WLT will continue to advocate for the least destructive option and supports the steps that have already been taken to reduce the environmental impact in the August 5, 2019 plans, such as locating certain athletic facilities at another location. There is an extremely limited amount of undeveloped land remaining in Waltham, and other previously developed parcels can be repurposed for this type of use.
WLT takes this position acutely aware that the Middlesex Superior Court has also made findings that the property at 554 Lexington Street was being actively marketed for sale to private developers starting in 2015. While the controversy regarding the property is regrettable, the Land Trust has been advocating for the City to acquire this property for open spaces for many years and is grateful that the parcel was not ultimately sold to developers who could have constructed a luxury apartment complex or subdivision, possibly with little or no local input and significantly more acres lost or no natural buffer around the property.
WLT views the ongoing public dialogue concerning the property as a positive opportunity to maximize conservation in collaboration with the City while meeting its urgent educational infrastructure needs. With that in mind, the Land Trust encourages the City to explore ways to further reduce the footprint of the campus by working within existing topography, such as building up three or four stories in front and two in the back, to lessen the need to clear cut trees and blast out ledge.
WLT understands the critical need for a new high school and while we would have preferred that it require no additional development of existing open space, the more limited of the current proposals mean the lowest net loss of open space possible and leaves the Storer Conservation Land, Paine Estate, and the Chesterbrook Woods wholly untouched. The Land Trust also applauds the City’s commitment to repurposing the existing high school to meet other educational needs, rather than using additional undeveloped land for this purpose, and will continue to advocate for the City to set aside additional undeveloped open space, protected permanently by conservation restrictions, to mitigate the acres lost at 554 Lexington Street.
The Land Trust’s long-standing policy has always been that if development must proceed on open space parcels, it should be permitted only after alternatives for re-use have been proven unfeasible and an open space parcel of comparable size and conservation value is protected in perpetuity. Development in Waltham should be limited in size, concentrated in area, built with the best environmental practices available and strategically located to maximize preservation of the site’s natural resources. All of these principles are compatible with building a cutting-edge educational facility on this land, provided the City chooses to make conservation a priority.
Please note that Board Members George Darcy, Nadene Stein, and Phil Moser, did not participate in the Land Trust’s meetings or other discussions concerning this matter.
On June 25, 2018, the Waltham City Council approved the acquisition of the Stigmatine property located at 554 Lexington Street for the purpose of building the new Waltham High School. The decision to acquire the Stigmatines came after lengthy discussion of multiple potential sites by the Waltham School Building Committee, city officials, and the community. The Waltham Land Trust affirmatively opposed certain proposed sites such as the Storer Conservation Land, Paine Estate, and the Chesterbrook Woods, which would have required development of substantial acreage already designated and used as community green space, directly contrary to WLT’s mission. With regard to the Stigmatine property, multiple options have been discussed, some of which are consistent with our mission and others that are not. The Land Trust has therefore been awaiting more information about how the City intends to proceed in order to ensure it is fully informed before taking a position.
On June 11, 2018, WLT Executive Director Sonja Wadman met with the Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Drew Echelson. Dr. Echelson wanted to ensure WLT members are aware that the proposed high school site at the Stigmatines would allow for full preservation of the Chesterbrook Woods and Paine Estate and would not require development of land from either of these parcels. While WLT was happy to learn that the immediate risk to these other parcels is lessened, WLT remains concerned about the potential loss of natural habitat surrounding the border of the Stigmatine property, which includes mature forests, steep rocky hillsides, sunny outcroppings, a small wetland and intermittent stream, and lowbush blueberries and lady slipper orchids throughout. WLT would enthusiastically support a high school that provides for the conservation of this important natural buffer between the campus and the surrounding area, but will oppose plans that do not include conservation as an important priority.
Our core responsibility at the Waltham Land Trust is to protect the City’s open space. WLT wants the best for Waltham’s students, and regrets that conflicts have arisen as important community needs compete for scarce resources. But as the sworn protectors of Waltham’s open space, WLT must be guided by its mission — to acquire, preserve or restore land in a way that balances conservation and access, maximizes the natural value of the land, reduces habitat fragmentation and permanently protects and conserves Waltham’s natural resources. WLT does so to ensure that our natural environment is protected for generations to come.
The Land Trust’s long-standing policy has always been that if development must proceed on open space parcels, it should be permitted only after alternatives for re-use have been proven unfeasible and an open space parcel of comparable size and conservation value is protected in perpetuity. Development should be limited in size, concentrated in area, built with the best environmental practices available and strategically located to maximize preservation of the site’s natural resources. All of these principles are compatible with building a cutting edge educational facility on this land, provided the City chooses to make conservation a priority in its design.
The Land Trust has considered this property one of the five largest parcels in the City at-risk of development in our Open Space Inventory for several years now. The WLT Board is also acutely aware that even more destructive development of the property, such as for a large-scale 40B development of nearly 500 units, was previously a real and serious risk. Now that the City Council has voted to acquire the Stigmatine property for the purposes of constructing a new high school, it is our understanding that the City will soon have the access necessary to conduct a more comprehensive study of the property. WLT looks forward to seeing more definitive plans for the site.
WLT hopes and expects that whatever plans the City arrives at will demonstrate a commitment to conservation as concurrent priority together with building an innovative educational campus. Preservation of the natural environment must be part of our commitment to the next generation of Waltham. This can be accomplished with development within a constrained building envelope, structured parking to minimize land use, and plans that maintain trail and wildlife corridors and the connections to contiguous parks and other open space.
The Waltham Land Trust has been grateful for the strong relationship we have had with the City of Waltham and the Waltham School Department since our inception. In response to our campaigns and our partnership, the City has acquired over 135 acres of open space and hosted several miles of the Western Greenway Trail, including on the current Waltham High School property. For our part, the Land Trust has trained and mobilized teams of trail stewards who watch over and repair the City’s open space assets. WLT brings Waltham’s open space to its residents, and especially its young people, with myriad educational programs, walks, volunteer days, and collaborations with the City’s network of non-profits and educators. Together we have been creating a legacy of conservation in Waltham.
For more on WLT's position concerning the construction of a new high school, click here.
Please note: WLT Board members George Darcy III and Stephen Rourke, who are/were also members of the Waltham City Council, board member Philip Moser, who is also a member of the Waltham Conservation Commission, board member Marie Daly, who is a also a member of the Waltham Historical Commission, and board President Dr. Nadene Stein, who is also a member of the Waltham School Building Committee, have not participated in, and where appropriate will recuse themselves from future participation in, the WLT discussions and voting on this matter.