Convinced that Merrimack College’s latest expansion plans pose a threat to the small-town charm of their picturesque neighborhood, a group of Andover homeowners is sounding the alarm.
Their simple plea — NO DORMS! — is written in bold yellow letters on blue yard signs, planted in well-manicured lawns near the entrance to the private Catholic college near the junction of routes 114 and 125.
Members of the newly formed Coalition for Merrimack College Smart Growth have been handing out fliers at the local commuter rail station and using social media to detail their concerns about the college’s plans to build four new residence halls and a student commons building on Austin Field, a grassy, tree-lined lot that straddles the Andover/North Andover line. Two dorms would be located in each town with the community/student commons in the middle.
“We chose to live in Andover because of its top-notch schools and community spirit. This project would completely change the quality of life we came here for,” said Saleha Walsh, a coalition member who grew up in North Andover and graduated from Merrimack College in 1987. She now lives across the street from the lush 4.5-acre Austin Field, in a close-knit neighborhood consisting mostly of modest, ranch-style homes.
Jeff Doggett, chief operating officer at the college, said the $15 million project is necessary for the school to grow and remain competitive. He said Merrimack officials believe the new buildings will be a positive addition to both the campus and the surrounding communities.
Merrimack has “heard from neighbors, business leaders, students, and prospective students who think this [project] is a great enhancement to the college,” he added.
The college earlier this month submitted plans for the development of Austin Field to both towns. The Andover Planning Board is scheduled to review the school’s proposal on Tuesday night. The North Andover Planning Board has scheduled a public hearing for Aug. 5.
But even before the site plans were filed, dismayed residents were reaching out to officials in both towns and to Republican state Representative Jim Lyons, whose district includes both Andover and North Andover. Merrimack had invited neighboring residents to a June 12 meeting, at which the dorm expansion plans were unveiled. The phone calls and e-mails started soon afterward.
“To put the wood-framed town houses on the only green space left is a major mistake for the future of the school and the town,” Andover residents Bert and Camille Ouellette wrote in a June 30 e-mail to the town.
Coalition members — all of them Andover residents — said the five buildings would leave an indelible scar on the gateway to their hometown, eliminating a green space that attracts students and neighbors for picnics and impromptu ballgames.
They also said the project, with its two- and three-story buildings, is not in keeping with the character of the neighborhood and will exacerbate existing traffic, parking, public safety, and storm-water runoff issues. The neighbors also pointed out that the field is often used for overflow parking during big college events such as graduation and playoff hockey games.
The coalition has posted an online petition at change.org, written in the form of an open letter to college president Christopher E. Hopey, asking him “to act more responsibly” and build new dorms elsewhere, on a site farther from a residential area. So far, more than 600 people have signed.
According to Doggett, the college “reviewed all of the options on the campus and we concluded, both in terms of where to site the housing and how it fits within the campus as a whole, that the site selected and proposed is the best one for Merrimack College.”
Doggett said the college believes some of the concerns, such as traffic and storm-water runoff, are not caused by Merrimack but “impact the college and the neighbors equally. They are common concerns, and we can work with them for a common solution.”
The school’s strategic plan calls for an undergraduate population of 3,000, with roughly 80 percent of those students housed on campus. To help meet that goal, the college has in recent years enhanced its recruiting efforts, opened five new residence halls, and renovated its welcome center, library, and the Volpe Athletic Center on the 220-acre campus. This fall, the college expects to enroll 2,800, with 73 percent living in student housing.
“We’ve had unprecedented demand for campus housing this fall, which underscores our belief that the future of Merrimack is in creating a stronger residential community,” said Merrimack spokesman Jim Chiavelli, noting that the college will provide housing for 100 or so students at the off-site Royal Crest apartment complex in leased and supervised units.
“We support Merrimack needing to grow, but just not at our expense,” said coalition member Jennifer Ross, an elementary school teacher who lives within a stone’s throw of Austin Field.
Joanna Reck, an architect and fellow coalition member who lives directly across from the field, said she and her neighbors have had to call police, fire, and ambulances to the college because of student shenanigans.
Police records show that since September 2012, there have been 37 arrests made by Andover police at 50 Fox Hill Road, an address the department uses for the college. The arrests, made about two blocks from Reck’s home, include two gun charges and five weapons charges, records show.
Reck said she fears Merrimack’s plan to “put 350 students on our front lawn” will translate into an increase in crime in the area, an issue that will have to be handled by Andover’s emergency responders.
“It’s our tax money that pays for all those services, not the college,” Reck said.
Reck and Ross said they hold out little hope that the college-sponsored community meetings — which began Thursday and are scheduled to continue on Monday, Thursday, and July 28 — will result in substantive changes to the college’s expansion plans. They worry that the college will press forward with plans to break ground this fall, emboldened by the Dover Amendment.
Under the state law, the towns cannot deny a site plan for agricultural, religious, educational, or child-care facilities. Rather, local officials can only impose “reasonable conditions” on its approval.
The amendment “limits the purview of what the [Planning] Board can reasonably regulate as part of this process,” Andover planning director Paul Materazzo wrote in a July 1 e-mail to Town Manager Reginald S. “Buzz” Stapczynski and a concerned resident.
“The college is acting like the Dover Amendment is a rubber stamp that allows them to do whatever they want because they’re not subject to certain zoning restrictions,” said Walsh, the coalition member who lives nearby. “But what they’re building is not an educational facility; it’s housing.”Brenda J. Buote may be reached at brenda.buote@