Friday, December 3, 2004
Middlesex School announces expansion into Estabrook Woods
As in all epic battles, both sides believe passionately in their cause. For fourteen years the Middlesex School and a group of concerned citizens, including many Middlesex students and alumni, have litigated and argued over a portion of Middlesex-owned Estabrook Woods where the school wants to expand its facilities. The citizen group is deeply committed to preserving an unfragmented forest that serves as a biological reservoir for fauna and flora, and offers "spiritual enrichment, historical value, scientific research and recreation." The Middlesex School says it has nowhere else to go.
Earlier this fall, the school obtained a court-ordered permit to construct a bridge across a stream and wetlands, opening the way to building athletic facilities on 28 acres in the Woods, part of the 45-acre parcel known as the A Land (see map).
While admitting that its funds for any further court challenges are depleted, members of the citizen group met last weekend to look "where to go from here." In the words of Middlesex alumna and citizen group organizer Molly Tsongas, "The woods have not seen their last line of defense!"
The Estabrook Woods is a tract of mostly forested land in Carlisle and Concord. Through it winds the Estabrook Trail, the route the Minutemen used on April 19, 1775the only minuteman route still in original condition. Most of the tract — approximately 1,750 acres — is protected under conservation restrictions and privately owned, including the 700 acres owned by Harvard and used as an ecology study area. Other protected land is held by land trusts or private owners under conservation restrictions, and some is owned by town conservation commissions. About 200 acres of the Estabrook Woods belong to the Middlesex School, of which 53 acres (CR-1 on the map) is currently under protection.
This forest is home to a variety of wildlife, including the endangered blue-spotted salamander.
History of disputes
In the early 1990s the school sought permits to build athletic facilities and faculty housing on its land in the Woods. In 1995, the Concord Natural Resources Commission (CNRC) denied the school's application for a permit to cross wetlands to gain access to its 85 upland acres (A and B Lands). Middlesex immediately appealed the decision to the DEP; the playing fields were included; faculty housing was not.
In 1997, the school, along with the CNRC and other interested organizations, entered into a mediation process. In return for the CNRC pledge not to file a future appeal or court action, Middlesex promised to grant a permanent conservation restriction on about 110 acres of its Estabrook holdings, including environmentally sensitive and generally unbuildable wetlands, Bateman's Pond, and a 100-foot buffer adjacent to Harvard's Estabrook Woods. Fifty-three acres were placed under conservation restriction (CR-1). An additional 60 acres would go into conservation upon completion of the legal process and permitting of the construction plans (CR-2).The agreement also precluded the Town of Concord from further legal opposition to the development proposal. The other parties to the negotiations did not accept the settlement.
In June 1999, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection overturned the original CNRC denial and allowed the school to proceed with construction, and the opposition group appealed that decision
This April the DEP again sided with the school, granting the wetlands permit and clearing the way for development of the A Land. An adjacent 40 acres (B Land), which extends deeper into the woods, is protected until 2017, at which time it could be developed, largely free of local zoning restrictions.
Middlesex expansion plans
This October, the Middlesex Board of Trustees, citing a "fiduciary responsibility to protect and promote the well-being of the school," informed alumni and friends in a letter that the school is ready to pursue its plans to build:
• a bridge 23 feet wide and 250 feet long across the wetlands area. This bridge will be made of metal grate to allow rain and light through;
• two athletic fields with artificial turf, which will require no irrigation, pesticides, fertilizers or mowing, minimizing any run-off, noise, or other environmental issues;
• eight tennis courts;
• a "green" restroom and a shed.
According to Head of the School Kathleen Giles, Middlesex has received only six e-mails and letters in response, four of which congratulated the trustees for finding a solution that is environmentally sensitive. "We are a little surprised by the silence," says Giles. "It's different than what we expectedThe board did listen to the [environmental] concerns and balanced them with the long-term needs of the school."
The starting date for construction is still uncertain. The school still needs a permit from the Concord Planning Board and is considering a smaller bridge than permitted by the DEP. Currently, says Giles, the school is raising funds, but may start the project as early as next summer.
Addressing the current and long-term needs of the school, Giles says, "If you are going to have a really rich program for the students — Chinese, five singing groups, traditional sports — the school needs significant student power." In the last three years, the school census rose from 320 to 350 students. "We are stuffed," she says.
In the future Middlesex may need more student and faculty housing. However, she continues, it will probably be more economical to construct new buildings closer to Lowell Road, even if that means losing a playing field (along Lowell Road). Although the school owns some land across Lowell Road, concerns for student safety preclude expansion there. However, Giles points out, that may be an appropriate place for future faculty housing.
Impact of development
In separate conversations, members of the citizen group — Ken Harte of Carlisle, Lansing Old of Concord, and Nick d'Arbeloff of Carlisle — outline their concerns about the impact of losing a portion of the Woods.
The short-term environmental impact is probably "not severe," says Harte. It will affect the blue-spotted salamander, which has a known habitat on the Middlesex School property. However, there will be other losses. If you hike the Minuteman trail you will be able to see fields (and hear) the school playing fields. In addition, Middlesex students will lose their school-owned environmental preserve.
The area of the interior of the forest, buffered from developed land, will be diminished, and this will undoubtedly have an impact on animal species in the woods, although it may take 40 years to fully understand it, says Old. Future development on the B Land will bring additional risks; the area is only 400 feet from the old Minuteman path.
After so many contentious years, a deep frustration surfaces against the school, which, they feel, should be a better citizen and give a better example of sensitivity to environmental and historical preservation.
For the moment, the court battles are over, but the passions haven't cooled. The group is desperately searching for ways to stop or delay the construction. With few obvious legal options left, there are hints, especially among younger members, that emotions may boil over into acts of civil disobedience.
"Middlesex has a right to develop their land," says d'Arbeloff, "but this incursion into the Estabrook Woods is a tragedy."
© 2004 The