Two neighbors of the proposed new Bancroft Elementary School suing the town over the project’s potential flood impacts have agreed to delay legal proceedings, and have entered talks with Andover officials in the hope of coming to a settlement agreement soon, according to their attorneys.
Dana Willis and Michael R. Noakes, who are appealing a recent Superior Court decision upholding the town’s plan, were scheduled to have legal briefs filed on their behalf last week to proceed with the appeal, but instead opted to extend the filing to May so that they could continue talks with Andover officials, said Peter E. Flynn, one of their attorneys.
“There’s been what we hope is a breakthrough with respect to a likely settlement,’’ Flynn said. “We don’t have a signed agreement, but we have, over the last couple of weeks, advanced to an encouraging point, so we’re hoping for the best.’’
Appeals filed last year with the state’s Department of Environmental Protection and in Superior Court over concerns about wetlands replacement, storm water runoff, and flood management along a proposed site access road off West Knoll Road led to an indefinite delay in construction of the $44.7 million school, which was scheduled to start last fall and be completed in time for the 2013 school year.
Both DEP and the Superior Court have since issued decisions in favor of the town’s plan, which were appealed by Willis and Noakes. Concerned that the appeals process could delay construction for up to two years, the School Building Committee sought and received approval last month from the Massachusetts School Building Authority to alter the construction schedule allowing work to begin on the new school building first, instead of on the West Knoll Road extension, while the appeals are still active.
The School Building Authority is footing approximately $17 million of the cost of the new kindergarten-to-fifth-grade school, which will replace the 42-year-old existing Bancroft School, as well as the Shawsheen Elementary School. Both buildings have been deemed structurally deficient and expensive to maintain.
But Flynn said another kind of progress has been taking place behind the scenes over the past few weeks, and he credits his clients for having an open dialogue with town officials.
“The School [Building] Committee and the town counsel, everybody seems to be thinking where we are now is best to try to resolve rather than continue this, because the delay is costing the town money, and we’re rapidly coming into the prime building period of time for the project,’’ Flynn said. “It looks like there’s a willingness to satisfy our clients in the major areas that have been the points of contention. . . . Town officials, the selectmen, and the people interested in this, as well as our clients, are all seemingly getting together and understanding that maybe there is some common ground to getting this done.’’
Selectman Paul Salafia said the conversations in progress are “very encouraging.’’
“I think we are coming close to what I think is an agreement between the town and the abutters on how to build the school and not be intrusive on them,’’ Salafia said. “There have been some encouraging signs that the abutters and the town are talking about an agreement.’’
Already, the ongoing litigation has delayed the project by at least one school year. If construction of the new building gets underway in July, as planned, the new school won’t open until 2014, said Tom Deso, chairman of the School Building Committee. Since the project’s suspension last fall, construction costs have also gone up across the board, which is likely to affect the project’s bottom line, he said, adding that the committee expects to have new project bid estimates ready by next month. Still, Deso said moving toward a potential settlement is desirable.
“Our goal would always be to build the project as we intended, and we’d prefer a settlement,’’ Deso said. “Any movement to try to reach an a settlement would be preferable.’’
The School Building Committee is scheduled to meet with Willis and Noakes this week to continue discussions on the sticking points surrounding the West Knoll Road extension, Deso said.
In addition to agreeing to delay the appeal on the Superior Court decision until May, Flynn said the other appeal filed on the DEP decision is “best described as ‘tabled’ for the time being.’’ The suit in Superior Court alleged the project was in violation of Andover’s wetlands bylaws, while the DEP appeal argued that it did not comply with the Wetlands Protection Act.
“All of this we’re hoping is unnecessary,’’ Flynn said. “I’d love to see both the settlement and the project go forward. . . . Right now we are happy with what we’re hearing. Nobody is saying ‘no’ right now, just, ‘How is it going to work.’ We’ll get there.’’