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Wilmington

High school project gets underway

After months of delay caused by environmental appeals, Wilmington is celebrating the start of an $82.7 million project to replace the town’s aging high school.

Work had been set to begin last July on the 192,000-square-foot building that will rise next to the existing school on Church Street, but it did not get underway until February. Originally scheduled to open in the fall of 2014, the school is now on pace to open in the spring of 2015.

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“This is a year too late for me, but I’m glad it’s finally here,” said School Superintendent Joanne M. Benton. “It should have happened last year, but I’m very excited to be . . . breaking ground.”

The project, with 55.2 percent of its eligible costs borne by the Massachusetts School Building Authority, marks the first construction of a new school in Wilmington since the middle school opened in 2001.

An official groundbreaking ceremony for the project was held Thursday.

Voters in a December 2011 special election overwhelmingly approved a Proposition 2½ debt exclusion, or temporary tax increase, to fund the town’s $44.7 million share of the project. Special Town Meeting then authorized the full budget by a near unanimous vote. The debt exclusion is estimated to add $164 to the annual tax bill for the town’s average single-family home, valued at about $357,000, over a 25-year period.

The project stalled last year when a 10-citizen group and an abutter separately appealed to the state Department of Environmental Protection the order of conditions issued by the Conservation Commission approving the project.

The appeals contended that the town had not done enough to protect wetlands and ground water in the area from the impact of the new school building and the crumb-rubber artificial turf field included in the project, according to department documents.

On July 13, the department issued a superseding order of conditions approving the project. The citizens’ group and the abutter, Gerald O’Reilly, appealed. In October, the department’s commissioner, Kenneth Kimmel, approved the project by issuing a modified order with several new conditions.

Kimmel rejected a motion for reconsideration by the citizens’ group, but O’Reilly has appealed to Middlesex Superior Court, alleging the project would harm his drinking water supply.

Town Manager Jeffrey M. Hull said that the “final order of conditions, based on our conversations with our attorney, granted the town the right to proceed as long as we adhere to the conditions that the DEP has set out. So barring any other legal action by Mr. O’Reilly, we are free to proceed.”

Hull called the groundbreaking celebration, which was slated for noon Thursday, a “great moment. It demonstrates we are making progress despite the efforts of a small minority. . . . I think it points to the fact that we are moving forward.”

Jeffrey S. Baker, O’Reilly’s attorney, could not be immediately reached, but in January he told the Globe by e-mail: “For Mr. O’Reilly, this case is about one thing only. 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.”

Town officials estimate the delays have cost about $1.7 million, but they say the project remains on budget. Jeffery Luxenberg of Joslin, Lesser + Associates, the project manager, credited “a lot of herculean efforts on everyone’s part” for avoiding any shortfalls.

The original schedule called for the project to begin last summer with demolition of the gym and construction of the artificial turf field, with the new field in place for the high school football team to use last fall.

When work finally started during February vacation week, contractors were able to raze the gymnasium and remove tennis courts. But to minimize disruption to spring athletics, construction of the artificial field, which will be built on the existing football field, will not begin until later this spring.

Within the next few weeks, excavations for the foundations of the new school will begin, with delivery of the structural steel set for July, according to Bill Cunniff of Joslin, Lesser.

The existing 154,000-square-foot school was built in 1950, and there have been a number of additions over the years. Officials say it is in sore need of replacement, with worn-out mechanical systems, limited technology, and inadequate access for people with disabilities among its deficiencies.

“It’s a tired old building, a 1950s building,” Benton said. “The new building is really going to be a 21st-century school.”

For example, the new school will have flexible spaces to spur interdisciplinary collaboration among teachers and students, Benton said, observing that such collaboration “is one of the skills students need to learn in the 21st century.”

Other distinct features of the school will include a lecture facility and an outdoor central courtyard for various academic and extracurricular activities.

The building, to be constructed on the former site of the gymnasium and practice field, will also offer a new gymnasium, auditorium, cafeteria, and media center.

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.
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