March 16, 2020
The COVID-19 situation escalated immediately following a particularly tough situation concerning the competing community needs for conservation and a new high school. Secondary to our support of the Waltham community’s health and safety, which is paramount, WLT would like to take this opportunity to clarify its support for Waltham’s students. While WLT is disappointed that the transfer of the Jericho Hill parcel was approved with limited information, we are committed to moving forward in a positive and collaborative manner.
As we have stated from the beginning, WLT supports a state-of-the-art educational facility for Waltham’s young people and did not object to the use of the property at 554 Lexington Street for this purpose, provided this would ensure the protection of the surrounding open space. WLT is also mindful that it is essential to make sure that Waltham’s open space is interconnected, rather than segmented which diminishes its conservation value.
WLT continues to have significant questions about the recent transfer of Jericho Hill. It has been very challenging to find concrete information about the various deadlines associated with the new high school, whether they are from the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA), Massachusetts Environmental Protection Agency (MEPA), Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), or others.
The requested transfer of this land also came quickly and as a surprise. WLT will continue to advocate for the preservation of Waltham’s open space, which is also for the benefit of the kids in our community, when these unexpected issues arise.
We hope that in the future, City officials will feel comfortable discussing such options with WLT in advance to work towards collaborative solutions. We applaud the sentiment of Councillor Randy Leblanc’s proposal to preserve six acres of alternate open space if Jericho Hill is used for the high school. While no two pieces of land are alike, some have more conservation value than others, so it is regrettable that there was not more of an opportunity to discuss the details of how this would occur before the March 9, 2020 City Council meeting.
However, when these types of difficult choices must be made in the future, we hope that City officials will attempt to work with WLT to try to arrive at solutions that meet both the urgent need for a new high school and critical conservation objectives.
WLT’s understanding is that the next step in this process is for the City to prepare a Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) to MEPA. WLT hopes the DEIR will also evaluate other options for the design that stay within the forty-six acre perimeter of the 554 Lexington Street parcel, including adding one floor to the high school which was offered by the architects in their March 5, 2020 Update included in the electronic version of the City Council docket.
WLT will also pursue placing Conservation Restrictions on the parts of 554 Lexington Street and Jericho Hill that remain untouched by the high school design, as well as on Sanderson Heights and other at-risk parcels that must be permanently protected. Much of the land in Waltham that the public believes is protected open space lacks these restrictions which are essential to its permanent preservation.
Finally, WLT looks forward to reviewing and commenting on the DEIR when it becomes available, likely in May, and will encourage others to do the same. We understand the timeline of these activities is tentative given the current situation. Until the DEIR is complete, MEPA is not accepting other comments at this time. WLT will notify its membership when the next comment period is open.
Thank you for your patience and understanding as together we navigate the constantly evolving situation ahead.
March 5, 2020
The Waltham Land Trust was very concerned to see that on March 2, 2020 the City Council voted after executive session to transfer approximately 6 acres of property known as Jericho Hill to the School Department for possible use as parking and athletic facilities for the new high school. The Land Trust's mission is to preserve open space in our City. Part of that mission entails ensuring that when the City of Waltham acquires land for open space with public dollars, the City fulfills its commitment to keep that land in its natural, undeveloped state.
When Jericho Hill was acquired in 2001, at the Land Trust's urging, the City clearly purchased it to be preserved as open space. The City has held it out to the public as open space and included it the City's open space plan for the two decades since. These are the exact types of conduct that give land protection under Article 97 of the Massachusetts Constitution and Smith v. City of Westfield; the residents of Waltham have the right to expect that land acquired as open space will remain that way.
If you have not seen the Jericho Hill land in person, the Land Trust urges you to visit and see firsthand what will potentially be lost, together with the breathtaking but challenging topography of this forested summit. We invite members of the Waltham City Council, along with the general public, to join the Land Trust in walking this parcel on Saturday, March 7, at 2 pm. Please carpool and park/meet at the end of Jericho Hill Road.
The Land Trust understands that Waltham is in dire need of a new high school and had not objected to the use of the land at 554 Lexington Street for this purpose, largely because of assurances that this would guarantee the preservation of the surrounding open space, and because it became clear 554 Lexington Street was at risk of even greater potential destruction if it were sold to a private developer. However, precisely due to the fact that our community will always have competing important needs, it is essential that open space remain an urgent priority and that when land is acquired for that purpose it is properly protected from future development. Whether it is carbon recapture from trees, wetlands that mitigate runoff, habitat for a diverse range of plants and animals, or serving as an important natural oasis, open space offers countless benefits for our community that are vital to its long-term health and success, but can be easy to overlook.
The Land Trust appreciates the process surrounding the new high school has presented our community with a range of challenges. It has also revealed a concerning tendency by some City officials to consider land acquired for, and categorized as, preserved open space as being available for these types of uses. If this trend continues, it has the potential to radically negatively change the landscape of our community.
For these reasons, we are calling on Waltham Land Trust supporters to take the following action:
- Contact your City Councillors, the Mayor, and School Committee, and encourage them to preserve Jericho Hill.
- Attend the City Council Meeting on Monday, March 9, at 7:30 pm to show your support for the preservation of open space. Consider bringing a sign or wearing a Land Trust t-shirt, cap or supporter button.
- Contact your City Councillors and the Mayor and advocate for a public commitment to preserve the City's existing open space with conservation restrictions that guarantee when land is purchased for conservation/open space the public can truly count on it remaining that way.
For further information contact Sonja Wadman, Executive Director, by calling the WLT office at 781-893-3355 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
[The Waltham Land Trust board of directors includes a City Councillor and a School Department employee. Neither director attended the discussions or votes on endorsing this position.]