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Wilmington

Appeal filed on school project

A resident whose home borders the site for the new Wilmington High School has filed an appeal of the $82 million project in Middlesex Superior Court, alleging construction of the school and a synthetic turf athletic field would harm his drinking water supply.

Gerald O’Reilly, a 40-year resident of Wildwood Street, also alleges the town demonstrated a “callous and insensitive disregard” for his safety and his longstanding concern about the quality of ground water feeding into his private well, the complaint states.

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“For Mr. O’Reilly, this case is about one thing only,” his attorney, Jeffrey S. Baker of Boston, wrote in an e-mail. “Clean water for himself, his children, and his grandchildren. It has been a 30-year struggle to protect his family from the contamination of his water.”

But town officials — facing their third environmental appeal on the project since the spring — say delays already have added $1.7 million to the cost, and plan to start working on the project in February.

“We’re moving full steam ahead,” said Board of Selectmen chairman Michael J. Newhouse. “Given the extraordinary escalation of costs, it doesn’t make sense for us to sit on our hands.”

The project involves building a new high school on land adjacent to the existing school on Church Street, in the town center. An artificial turf field, made from crushed tire rubber, would replace the grass football field.

Construction bids are scheduled to be opened on Thursday. Demolition of the gymnasium, which is necessary for construction, will begin over the February school vacation week, Newhouse said.

He estimates for every six months of delay, the project’s cost would go up another $1 million, based on rising labor and materials costs in the improving construction sector.

“We will know, when we open the bids on the 24th, if our numbers are accurate,” Newhouse said.

Appeals already have pushed back the school’s opening date by one year, to the fall of 2015, he added.

The Board of Selectmen last Monday introduced a new legal wrinkle: Taking O’Reilly’s property by eminent domain. The law allows a municipality to take private land for a public purpose, so long as the property owner is paid at least fair market value.

“Saving $1 million every six months, I would say is a legitimate public purpose,” Newhouse said. “We have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers to stick to our budget.”

Baker did not respond to a request for comment about the prospect of his client’s property being taken by eminent domain.

The high school is one of Wilmington’s highest profile public construction projects. In December 2011, 98 percent of residents at a Special Town Meeting voted in favor of funding the $82 million project, which is line to receive $38 million from the Massachusetts School Building Authority. Voters in a special town election also approved a temporary property tax increase to fund the town’s $44 million share of the cost. The increase would average $164 a year, on a home valued at $357,066, for the life of the 25-year bond, according to town estimates.

But, the project stalled last spring, after two appeals were filed with the state Department of Environmental Protection. A group of 10 residents filed one appeal, and O’Reilly filed a second. Each appeal challenged the steps the town would take to protect ground water in the area from the impact of the new school building and turf field.

Ground water contributes to the drinking water supply of several private wells. Wetlands also abound near Mill Brook, a small stream that runs behind the school and is located in the Ipswich River watershed.

“Mr. O’Reilly supports the building of a new high school, but not at the increased risk to the health and well-being of his family,” Baker wrote in his e-mail.

In October, a Department of Environmental Protection hearing officer denied each appeal, but added several new conditions to the town’s environmental approvals for the project.

They include increased environmental monitoring; allowing only crushed rubber from cars, and not commercial trucks, to be used for the artificial turf; and limiting placement of construction materials to no closer than 100 feet of the wetlands area.

O’Reilly filed an appeal to the decision on Nov. 16 in Middlesex Superior Court. Kenneth L. Kimmel commissioner of the environmental agency, is a defendant in the lawsuit, along with several Wilmington officials, including Newhouse.

The town’s response was due to be filed last Wednesday.

Joe Ferson, a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Protection, said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

“The complaint includes allegations that we think are baseless and have no bearing on the project,” said Daniel R. Deutsch, a Boston lawyer representing the town.

Baker said O’Reilly is interested in resolving the matter. “We look forward to working with the town to ensure water in the surrounding area to the proposed development of the new high school remains safe for generations to come,” he wrote.

Kathy McCabe can be reached at kmccabe@globe.com.
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