Waltham and the Trustees of the Stigmatine Fathers this month will seek a mediated settlement of a protracted legal dispute that stands in the way of the city’s efforts to build a new estimated $375 million high school on land formerly owned by the religious order.
At the urging of state Superior Court Judge Diane Freniere, the two sides recently agreed to enter into mediation of their legal conflict surrounding the city’s $18 million taking by eminent domain of the 46-acre Stigmatine Fathers’ Lexington Street site last year. The session, mediated by retired Superior Court judge Stephen E. Neel, is set for Thursday, Dec. 5.
The mediation comes as Waltham faces pressure to resolve the legal issues surrounding the property or potentially risk losing a projected $110 million in funding for the high school project from the Massachusetts School Building Authority.
The agency in February approved Waltham’s plan to erect a new school at the Stigmatine Father’s property, but contingent on the city gaining full ownership, control, and exclusive use of the site. The plan is currently in schematic design.
The MSBA last month agreed to a third extension of the city’s deadline to resolve litigation regarding the site. The extension was from Oct. 31 to Feb. 29, according to Matt Donovan, the school building authority’s director of administration and operations.
The new 1,830-student school — serving regular and vocational programs — would be the state’s highest-priced. Along with the 418,007 square foot building, the plan calls for an athletic field and a parking facility below it.
Officials say the existing school, built in 1968, suffers from overcrowding because of rising enrollment, outdated science labs, inadequate handicap access, and aging building systems.
The city explored other potential sites before settling on the Stigmatine Fathers’ property in part because it could accommodate a school of the size needed.
The Stigmatine Fathers maintained the bucolic, hilltop property from 1923 until vacating it on June 30 because of the land-taking. The religious order had explored options for developing the site in 2015, and in 2016 entered into negotiations with Waltham over a potential sale, with no agreement resulting.
But the head of the order, the Rev. Robert S. White, said in a 2018 Globe interview that the group wanted to remain on the property, citing its importance to the order’s history and that it was an ideal setting for the group’s marriage preparatory classes and retreats.
“This would threaten our existence, our life as a community, because it takes away our identity here,” White said.
The legal wrangle, which began with an August 2018 suit filed by the city, has encompassed such issues as the validity of the land-taking and the amount the city provided for it, the timing of the Stigmatine Fathers’ departure from the site, and whether the city is meeting legal requirements to relocate the order.
The settlement effort comes after Judge Freniere on Oct. 2 denied the city’s request for a court declaration that Waltham’s June 2018 land-taking was valid. The declaration would have prevented the religious order from contesting the taking or the amount provided within the three-year window the law normally allows.
Freniere ruled in favor of a separate city motion, finding that Waltham has sole title to the 46 acres subject to the Stigmatine Fathers’ right to challenge the land-taking, something the order has yet to do.
“We are going to the mediation on Dec. 5 and I will go with an open mind,” Mayor Jeannette McCarthy said, declining further comment due to the pending litigation.
Attorney Peter E. Flynn, representing the Stigmatine Fathers, said, “We are going to that mediation in good faith ... We will have the willingness and authority to settle the case,” adding that he hoped city representatives would have that same authority.
Prior to her recent ruling, Freniere urged the two parties to seek a mediated settlement at an Oct. 2 hearing, according to a Waltham Newswatch videotape on YouTube.
“What I’m seeing up here is a mushroom cloud of many years of litigation,” the judge said in a videotape of the session, warning of the resulting steep legal costs for both sides. “[The Fathers] are off the property. That ship has sailed. Now let’s move on to the next chapter. I implore you to seek a mediator.”
The building plan, meanwhile, continues to draw objections from some others in the city.
“I admire and respect the mayor for trying to build a world-class high school, but I believe there are better sites. Building here would result in a dramatic loss of greenway, open space, and wildlife, and it’s highly disruptive to the neighborhood,” said abuttor Robert Hargrove. “Many of the neighbors I’ve seen are in tears over this.”
City resident Robert Coleman strongly supports a new high school but believes selecting the Stigmatine property was “a grave mistake,” citing its topography, ledge conditions, and abundant wood and wetlands, along with the uprooting of a religious order that had served the area with its “ministry and services.”
But School Committee member Edmund Tarallo said the city thoroughly reviewed possible sites and that the Stigmatine Fathers’ property, largely because of its size and location, “came out to be the one that made the most sense.”
Tarallo said traffic congestion is already a problem on Lexington Street but a traffic signal upgrade the city plans as part of the redesign of a nearby intersection might ease the problem.
While acknowledging the project would involve considerable blasting, he said that would be the case wherever the school is built because “Waltham has a lot of ledge.” He said the city will try to minimize blasting and overall disruption to the site’s natural areas by, for example, placing parking below the field.
“I’m hopeful the process moves quickly and that we can start construction sooner rather than later,” he said, noting the pressing need for more facility space not only at the high school but across the district.