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Woburn considers farm land for school

Three other sites also researched

Four years after Woburn purchased part of Spence Farm to keep it undeveloped, the potential construction of a new school on the 7.5-acre site is drawing strong objections from neighbors.

The property at 41 Wyman St. is one of four locations the city is considering for a consolidated, 410-student school serving the existing Wyman and Hurld elementary schools.

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The potential sites, which also include the two existing school locations and vacant property at 71 Wyman St. owned by the Mormon Church, are being evaluated in a study the city is undertaking as part of its bid to secure state funding for the estimated $30 million project.

Vince Grillo, a spokesman for the Wyman Neighborhood Group, said residents oppose building a school on Spence Farm because of fears it would aggravate flooding on Wyman Street. He said it also would eliminate a valued community open space.

“This is not the appropriate site,” Grillo said. “We feel the appropriate site is about a quarter of a mile down the road,” at 71 Wyman St.

Mayor Scott D. Galvin, who chairs the school building committee, said that while the Spence Farm site is being considered, no decisions have been made.

“At this point, there is no leading candidate among the four sites,” Galvin said. “We are still going through the study to determine which would be the best site.”

‘At this point, there is no leading candidate.’

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The mayor said the only location unlikely to be picked — because of its relatively small size — is the 3.6-acre Wyman School site, located four-tenths of a mile from Spence Farm at 679 Main St.

Woburn purchased a portion of Spence Farm in 2010 for $2.4 million when a local developer had plans to build 18 single-family homes on the property. Because the land was under a state agricultural protection program, Woburn had the right to buy it at the price the developer had agreed to pay.

The city adopted a .75 percent local meals tax to help fund the purchase of Spence Farm and Whispering Hills, 74.4 acres of open space bought for $6.7 million from Northeastern University, also in 2010.

The city-owned portion of Spence Farm was part of a 33-acre family-owned produce farm. The other two sections are currently being developed for single-family homes.

Grillo said in the four years since the city acquired the land, it has been used for community activities ranging from farmers markets to hay rides, recycling drives, and children’s fall festivals. The city also grows pumpkins and allows a Winchester farm to cultivate part of the farm in exchange for providing free classes.

Galvin acknowledged the city bought the land to protect it from development. But he said the city has never formally designated it as conservation or recreation land and “things change.”

In the event the site is chosen for the school, Galvin said the city would replace the lost open space by converting the 11.6-acre Hurld School site to a park-like setting. He also said that at least some agricultural activity could continue on the Spence Farm land if a school is built there.

Galvin said flooding in the area has been a longstanding problem that the city would need to address if it selects the Spence Farm site.

Ward 3 Alderman Mark Gaffney, whose district includes Spence Farm, opposes selecting that location for a new school at least until the city has more fully pursued the option of the other site on Wyman Street.

“To satisfy the neighbors, if we could buy the Mormon site, that would be great,” he said. If the city is not able to purchase that land, Gaffney said he would keep an open mind about using the Spence Farm property.

Galvin said the city is in discussion with the Utah-based Mormon Church about the city’s potential purchase of the 4.24 acres, a former industrial site, at 71 Wyman St. He said the church bought the land about eight years ago with the intent of building a meeting house, but that plan was never carried out.

City officials have said both the Hurld and Wyman schools are aged facilities in pressing need of replacement. The current study is looking at all building options, including renovation and expansion of the existing facilities. But Galvin said the city will likely try to build a new school given the conditions of the existing schools.

The study is expected to be completed by the end of September.

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