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Hilltop site for new Northeast Metro Tech raises opposition in Wakefield

a rendering shows the planned new home of Northeast Metropolitan Regional Vocational High School sitting atop a forested hill beyond the school’s track.PMA Consultants via Northeast Metro Tech

As Northeast Metropolitan Regional Vocational High School prepares to break ground on its new building in Wakefield, the plan to locate the facility on a forested hilltop is stirring last-minute controversy.

While fully supporting a new school, some local residents contend placing it on the hilltop would destroy a natural area offering important wildlife habitat and a place for people to enjoy the outdoors.

Northeast Metro Tech’s 60-acre Hemlock Road campus includes a 32-acre lower campus occupied by the existing school and athletic fields, and the undeveloped 28-acre hilltop, 13.5 acres of which would be used for the new school.

“Not many schools in the state own 28 acres of undeveloped beautiful forest. To destroy that is just unconscionable,” said Wakefield resident Paul Rybicki.

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Wooded trails that would be developed as part of the school's plan. Friends of Wakefield's NEMT Forest

Close to 2,000 people have signed a petition organized by Friends of Wakefield’s NEMT Forest opposing the hilltop location and asking that the 383,000-square-foot school instead be built on the football field.

Last January, voters overwhelmingly approved a districtwide ballot question approving the $317.5 million project. The Massachusetts School Building Authority is funding $140.8 million of the cost. The $176.6 million district share will be apportioned among the school’s 12 core communities: Chelsea, Malden, Melrose, North Reading, Reading, Revere, Saugus, Stoneham, Wakefield, Winchester, Winthrop, and Woburn.

Opponents also object that students would have to climb more than 100 stairs or a 735-foot-long elevated boardwalk to reach the school from the student parking lot below, and the unnecessary cost burden they said the plan poses to taxpayers.

But David DiBarri, Northeast Metro Tech’s superintendent, said the hilltop “is the only site the school can be built on.” He said the football field would not meet the school’s space requirements, notably the need to locate many of its vocational shops on the ground floor.

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A rendering shows an aerial view of the new Northeast Metro Tech school. PMA Consultants via Northeast Metro Tech

DiBarri said the district has no intention of reconsidering the site selection, noting that the MSBA approved the hilltop option and that by dropping the plan, the district would lose the $4 million it already has invested in the project. Site work is set to begin by February.

“The train has left the station on this project,” he said.

Melrose resident Linda Ireland, part of an informal coalition of local groups and individuals opposing the plan, said many residents mistakenly believe the hilltop land is part of adjacent Breakheart Reservation. She added many still think the school is going to be built on the football field, which a 2016 pre-feasibility study recommended.

The nearly 2-foot-long pileated woodpecker foraging on the trunk of an Eastern White Pine in the NEMT forest. Friends of Wakefield's NEMT Forest

“People don’t know that the fences are going to go up and trees are coming down soon, followed by months of blasting and site work, destroying over 2,000 trees and over 13 acres of rare wildlife habitat,” said Ireland, a conservation birder who leads nature walks in the forest.

The 2016 report was just a preliminary one, DiBarri said, adding that while the district did hope to build the school on the football field, it chose the current plan in 2020 when its project team found the hilltop location the only option. He said he has been clear about the selected location in numerous community meetings.

DiBarri said site work will take six months, but blasting only six weeks. While he had no specific estimate for how many trees will be removed, he said it was far fewer than the 2,000 opponents cite. He said clearing will be concentrated where tree density is relatively low.

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“This is not a lush forest area. It’s a combination of rock ledge and trees,” he said.

But Friends of Wakefield’s NEMT Forest said the hilltop includes “moss and lichen-covered volcanic rock outcrops, forested wetlands, springs, seeps, intermittent streams, and vernal pools supporting breeding spotted salamanders, wood frogs, spring peepers, and American toads.”

Two state-protected species — the Eastern whip-poor-will and Hentz’s Red-bellied Tiger beetle — also inhabit the forest, Ireland said. “There are so few places like this of such rare beauty that encourage an immediate connection to nature.”

Opponents say requiring students to climb the equivalent of 10 flights of stairs or a lengthy boardwalk poses significant access concerns.

“This design might work for the fittest students but for the average student who is not very fit, how is this going to work for them?” Ireland said, warning that it will also pose safety hazards should the stairs and boardwalk become icy. She also called a planned 35-foot-high rock wall along the western edge of the school a potential safety hazard.

DiBarri said the gently sloped boardwalk is a practical option for students with disabilities or those who want to avoid the stairs.

“We’re not asking too much,” he said, noting that students currently climb up and down hills to reach the athletic fields. He said maintenance staff can clear ice from the stairs and boardwalk and that there is no danger of students falling from the rock wall. Both campus levels will have abundant handicapped parking spaces, he added.

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Opponents say the plan also wastes taxpayer funds since the MSBA limits its reimbursement for site work, leaving the district to cover the rest.

But DiBarri said the site work won’t be excessive, noting that it avoids expenses — such as temporary classrooms — that would be incurred for a building adjacent to the existing school. He said using the hilltop site also means significantly less disruption to students.

Money aside, Rybicki said the hilltop is simply not suitable for the project.

“It’s great for hiking,” he said, “not for a school.”

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