Friday, July 27, 2001
Selectmen eye Fox Hill for school septic site: Conservation land would need 'change of use' vote
For the second time in a decade town boards are looking to the 11-acre Fox Hill conservation parcel off Bedford Road to provide a possible solution to a municipal problem. On July 12 the conservation commission received an exploratory visit from selectman Vivian Chaput, who reported that her board and the school building committee have been pursuing both private and town-owned properties as possible alternative locations for a new school septic system, should the state reject the town's preferred site on the Banta-Davis Land. Fox Hill, which offers reasonable access from the school, is one of four parcels under consideration.
Since the commission would have to agree to any "change of use" on land bought for conservation and carrying an agricultural restriction, Chaput wanted to know what legal hurdles might stand in the way. She noted that the town's proposal for Banta-Davis has, up to now, called for a standard septic system to handle the needs of the existing school. However, the state has informed them that because of the increased school population, they will now require the town to put in a "treatment facility" beyond the original project. To further complicate decisions in the matter, Banta-Davis is regarded as a prime location for a new school, should one prove necessary in the near future.
Chaput reviewed the long saga of the failed school septic system, explaining why the selectmen are concerned about approval of the Banta-Davis project. The state had turned down the town's original plan following an abutter's appeal and subsequent suit, and had asked that the plan be revised and resubmitted. In the intervening three years, the town has been paying $900 per month to have the Carlisle Schools' failed septic system pumped out.
Little visual impact
Chaput suggested that the use of Fox Hill for the underground septic system might not have a permanent impact on the aesthetics of the tract. She said the facility would require only "one small shed or barn" that could be hidden in the woods that make up a third or more of the parcel, while the hayfield that forms the sweeping vista from Bedford Road could revert to agricultural land as soon as the underground facilities were in place.
Looking for alternatives, commissioner Jo Rita Jordan asked if the treatment system could go under a soccer field. Chaput responded that the hillside near the school and Spalding Field have both been tested. The former didn't perk, and the water table under the latter was so high that the field would have to be raised to accommodate a system.
Commissioner John Lee inquired whether the town's right of eminent domain had ever been applied to private property. Chaput said that approach would require a two-thirds vote of Town Meeting and "would be a last resort in any case." Exploring further, Lee noted that putting the small control building at the back of the Fox Hill lot would also require an access road. On the more positive side, he added that the Town of Lincoln had installed a secondary treatment plant of the sort required here, and that there was no surface impact once the hardware was in place. He told Chaput the commission would certainly need to know how big the footprint would be for both the building and the sub-surface construction.
Chaput reiterated her assurances that, "We're looking at all options -- This is just preliminary." But at the selectmen's meeting on July 17, Chaput was delegated to return to the commission with a request to proceed with some non-invasive testing.
A look back at a 1993 attempt to swap Fox Hill for the Malcolm Land shows that even that somewhat more attractive deal was turned down by the commission. It was felt that removing conservation land from its use as specified by a vote of Town Meeting would set a dangerous precedent. Also, state law purposely makes it difficult, but not impossible, to accomplish such a "change in use," and requires approval by the state legislature. The significant question therefore becomes the following: Would this be considered a change in use if the hay field could still be maintained? Unfortunately, the director of the Division of Conservation Services Joel Lerner, who may well hold the key to the state's interpretation, is on vacation.
In the meantime, Lee appeared to express the current sentiment of the commissioners when he declared, "I would place this proposal as a last resort."
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