Waltham’s City Council Prepares to Take us Back to the Fernald
For some time, a majority of the Waltham City Council has been at odds with school officials and Mayor Jeannette McCarthy about where to put a new high school. Councillor Bill Fowler was one of the few exceptions. He supported the school committee’s selection of the Stigmatine site in his bid for re-election earlier this year, and when it seemed like things were at an impasse, he made a proposal to get everyone together in one room to figure things out. All of that ended on November 20, when Fowler abruptly changed his tune and asked his fellow councilors to gut his proposal. Rightly, many have wondered what happened to make him shift his stance so suddenly.
At the meeting of the Committee of the Whole, a visibly nervous Fowler said he no longer wanted to hear from any stakeholders in the high school selection process except the superintendent. Talking with the school committee would be a sideshow, he said. He said he needed more information about every available potential high school site in the city. He also revealed that he did not know anything about the previous high school proposals when he voted on them, and he was particularly emphatic about wanting to know what the superintendent’s “Plan B” will be if the site that has been selected by the school committee doesn’t pan out.
Suffice to say, Fowler’s about-face drew swift rebukes. During debate on his resolution, he lost the support of five colleagues and refused to allow Randy LeBlanc, the highest vote-getter in the November election, to speak. He was excoriated by 42-year council veteran Kathy McMenimen, and he prompted Councillor George Darcy to rescind co-sponsorship of the resolution.
The measure passed anyway. It appeared that a majority of councilors did not seem surprised by Fowler’s sudden change of heart at all. Their ease, and the substance of what they said offers some insight into what may be going on.
Council president Diane LeBlanc (no relation to Randy LeBlanc) and vice president Robert Logan were both supportive of Fowler, and helped him with his faltering words when he began speaking on his resolution. LeBlanc hinted that she was interested in knowing the superintendent's feelings about using the 196-acre site of the now-closed Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center, even though that option has twice been rejected by city and state agencies for a host of reasons. It is no longer under consideration by the school committee.
Logan agreed (while abstaining from the actual vote) as did six other councilors, who repeatedly mentioned the Fernald. Their hope, it appears, is to isolate the superintendent and use a meeting with him to advocate for what they want, which is a third try at using the Fernald.
The entire affair is notable because the council president has known for some time that the Fernald is not a viable option. I know this because she repeatedly came to me for information and advice about understanding the property over the last twelve months. I gave it freely, as I have to anyone who asks, until it became clear that she was willfully attempting to ignore essential issues about legal compliance at the site in order to pursue a politically-driven, unethical campaign to persuade residents to place a high school there even though she knows it could potentially cost the city millions of dollars, years in court, and end up without a high school at the site.
It seems only fair to share some of what she and others already know, even though they will pretend they don't, as they likely prepare to launch the city into renewed discussions to use the Fernald for a high school.
Fernald Can Never Be “Plan B.”
Councillor Fowler wants to know about the superintendent’s “Plan B” and it seems likely that the Plan B the councilors will push for is the Fernald. In two letters that LeBlanc has read, however, the state told the city that the Fernald cannot ever be a “Plan B”.
To build a high school at the Fernald, the city would have to demolish buildings that are part of a federally-recognized historic district. In a 2014 agreement with the state, the city said that those buildings are historically significant and that most have to be preserved. The only way the state will now allow for the demolition of those buildings is if the city has no alternative site for a high school. But we do have an alternative. In fact, we have two alternatives and the councilors know it.
The city has already indicated that both the existing high school site and the Stigmatine site are better options for building a new school. Because an equal or better alternative exists, the state has told the city that it cannot hold onto the Fernald as a Plan B or try to force it to be a sudden Plan A. It can only be used if it’s the only option because building a high school will destroy the historic district. This will be true for the use of the site for any future schools as well.
The Council’s Likely Plan to Use the Fernald is Faulty, Risky, Unprecedented, and Absurd
The Fernald was bought with two different sources of money. 140 acres were bought with money from the Community Preservation Act, and one of the rules is that no new buildings can be added to that land. The result is that a high school building would have to be built on the 50 acres of the Fernald which were not bought with funds from the Community Preservation Act (CPA). The problem is that this “non-CPA land” has historic buildings, a massive toxic waste site, and lots of ledge. All along, these challenges have led school officials to say that the site is less-than-ideal.
The council knows this, but over the last year LeBlanc and incoming Councillor/current State Rep. Tom Stanley have explored ways to try to get around the rules. They have floated the idea that they can simply “move the CPA line.” That’s shorthand for swapping dozens of acres of more troublesome “non-CPA” land for good CPA-land and trying to shake lose any legal restrictions in the process.
Here’s the catch: While the state has occasionally allowed very small swaps of an acre or two of equally good land to help preservation projects succeed, nobody has ever attempted to do what LeBlanc and Stanley have considered in the history of the state's Community Preservation Act.
They know this. They also know that the non-CPA land they plan to ditch is not of equal value to the land they want. It’s not a swap, nor would the state see it as one. Furthermore, they know that it would take an act of the state legislature to allow them to proceed. If they try to get the legislature’s support, it will be seen as a beacon to others who wish to abuse the CPA elsewhere in the state, putting all sorts of projects statewide at risk for similarly shifty behavior. As a result, their actions would almost certainly garner massive opposition, and would likely spur calls for an immediate halt to their efforts.
They will attempt to make "moving the line" sound easy and simple, but that’s only because their view of the possibility of such a gamble is absurd, simplistic, and out-of-touch with reality.
What We’re Actually Supposed to Be Doing at the Fernald
When Waltham bought the Fernald, the expressed purpose for buying 140 acres with CPA funds was “to delineate and replicate any wetlands on site.” Those wetlands exist all over the site, and building a high school would make a full restoration of them unlikely, if not impossible. For instance, one wetland area exists where LeBlanc would consider placing a high school if she could "move the line."
Publicly, most politicians never say anything about the wetlands issue, except that they intend to comply by restoring a couple of ponds on one part of the site. They say this because they want to use the rest of the CPA land for manicured sports fields, especially if they can “move the line”. But the Fernald CPA funding was not approved for putting in a few little ponds. It was approved for a massive ecological restoration project that would also put an end to flooding that occurs in every direction around the site.
Lest anyone think that the city's attempts to be clever have worked, hiding our intentions has already aroused suspicion about our actions and appears to be part of the reason the state responded to earlier planning efforts to use the Fernald with requests for more (and clearer) information about how we intend to deal with open space and historic issues at the site.
Our Terrible Track Record
Part of the problem with any attempt to use the Fernald for a high school is that it isn’t just restricted by the agreements we have put in place, but also plagued by the fact that the city has eroded trust with all of the stakeholders we need on board if we hope to get anything done, from state agencies to city boards, commissions, and constituents. LeBlanc and others refuse to see this. In the most cynical way possible, they believe that the political gridlock surrounding the high school allows them to propose bad options as the only good ones we have left.
Yet, much of this is of their own making. After three years of city ownership the city has refused to actually comply with the basics of the CPA at the Fernald. Preservation restrictions, which are the bedrock of any CPA agreement, still do not exist for any of the site. During this time, LeBlanc has known about it all, sitting on the council's Fernald committee and allowing its chairperson, Councillor John McLaughlin, to run it without transparency. It has no set meeting schedule, is never taped or filmed, has no regular agenda, has allowed all proposals to comply with the CPA except one to languish, and has tabled nearly a dozen resolutions put forward by Councillor Darcy.
This inaction gives the illusion that the property is in play when it’s not the case. It’s a game of chicken with the state, in which we’re daring them to call us out each day we fail to do what’s right. While our leaders may try to pretend that they haven’t had a hand in this, the state officials whose support we need to get anything done in this city know all-too-well that we are a flawed partner.
Of course, the gift of the Fernald is that it allows us to see these flaws out in the open. The question is, what is to be done now that they are? At a minimum, the council president should be denied the right to pursue her course of action if she does indeed intend to do it. She can no longer claim that she did not know the risks.
Some hope lies in the councilors who resisted Fowler's cowardly proposal. In a sudden development that followed the November 20 council meeting, Mayor McCarthy put forward steps to begin enacting master planning at the Fernald that mirrors the resolutions put forward by Councillor Darcy. They would begin to set the handling of the Fernald on the right path, and the council must take action on them even though they do not include placing a high school at the site. They should accept the mayor's proposals on the condition that preservation restrictions are put in place first. Without concerted public pressure, however, it is more likely that the the council will bury the plan and allow the property to continue languish.
Nor will the Fernald or the high school be the only examples of this kind of unnecessary political brinksmanship in the coming years. As someone who has tried to constructively persuade these leaders to do the right thing only to see it go down in flames every time, it's clear to me that this is business as usual for this council and for the politics of this city. It is part of a pattern, not an isolated incident. It will continue.
Citizens must take organized steps to make it as difficult for these leaders to achieve their goals as they have made it for us to get the representation we deserve. This cannot be a digitally driven effort and it cannot be bogged down by the frequent refrain that making politicians uncomfortable is somehow beneath us in our role as citizens in a democratic society. People need to go to council meetings, speak out at them, demand to be heard, and place relentless pressure on the councilors who voted to pursue this folly, and will surely vote to pursue the next one and the one after that and the one after that.
Councilors who voted to approve Fowler's resolution (or were supportive of it, but abstained) include:
Fowler (yes), D LeBlanc (yes), Giordano (yes), Marchese (yes), McLaughlin (yes), Romard (yes), Vidal (yes), Waddick (yes), Robert Logan (did not vote but verbally supported the measure). Contact information for councilors can be found here.