Local Government and Politics, News

Town could take church land for new school development

SWAMPSCOTT ― Public support for the new elementary school can be seen all over Swampscott, as well as all over different social media platforms; people post pictures of their children and dogs posing next to signs that say “This family is voting Yes for all children.”

In the Sept. 13 Town Meeting agenda, the Select Board will vote on the proposed budget for the new school project. Combined in that proposal is a second part, stipulating if the town can use eminent domain to take property from the Universalist Unitarian Church of Greater Lynn (UUCGL) to build a paved easement necessary for the new school.

The process of eminent domain stipulates the ability of the state to take private property for public use. In eminent domain takings, the private-property owner is then compensated accordingly by the state.

The special meeting has a motion to decide what the next steps will be regarding the proposed new elementary school project. If the Select Board votes to pass the motion, then the proposal will go to a town vote on October 19.

The new school would replace the three existing elementary schools, all of which were built between 70 to 110 years ago.

With the meeting coming up in little more than a week, UUCGL worries about what the new building could mean for their property. The church has been a part of the Swampscott community for 40 years.

Lawyer Carl Goodman, who is representing UUCGL, said that this easement would be extremely harmful not only to the church but to the surrounding wildlife, due to the fact that the church abuts wetlands.

“The town has tried to portray this as a limited easement,” Goodman said, adding that it seemed improbable to him that the proposed use of the land would only apply to school drop-off and pick-up times. “Even if that is the only actual usage, the layout is there forever ― it never changes.”

An informational sheet created by the church claims that they would have to cut down approximately 50 trees to clear the pathway for the easement, as well as disrupt local wildlife in the area with construction of the road.

The UUCGL is concerned about more than just the physical changes to their property, Goodman says. He says that the church also worries about the safety of people who will be on the easement.

“We know from history that regulation of school properties, the assignment of personnel for monitoring such things is among the first things that fail when budgets are tight,” Goodman said.

The town has stated in an official letter that they would keep the easement’s entrances and exits gated shut outside of the allotted drop-off and pick-up times, and that they would station crossing guards when it is in use.

Goodman claims that the land is worth more than $6 million, a number determined through architects, land surveyors and engineers that he and the church hired. The town has already offered to buy the land for $86 thousand to avoid a situation wherein eminent domain would be necessary.

The town believes that having the easement is the best way for the school to proceed, according to Select Board Chair Peter Spellios. He said that the town will continue to try to work with the church throughout the development of the easement.

“The town is committed to finding a fair and equitable resolution with the UU church, regardless of whether the church supports or does not support the new elementary school,” said Spellios. “After two years of public forums, design, and discussion, it is clear that this easement is necessary for the full and safe functioning for the new elementary school. The town is prepared to continue to meet with the church whenever and wherever they would like to.”

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