The bitter fight over plans for a new high school building and saving a forest in Wakefield

The Boston Globe

Residents and environmentalists are upset that a significant portion of the forest behind the Northeast Metro Tech School in Wakefield is being cut down to make way for a new school building. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Just south of the Northeast Metropolitan Regional Vocational High School in Wakefield sits 30 acres of pristine, untouched forest, home to wetlands and diverse species.

But that forest is now facing destruction as the school’s building committee prepares to cut down trees and blast a portion of the hillside to make way for a new school building to replace the old one, which is outdated and in need of repairs.

The Save the Forest and Build the Voke coalition, made up of residents and environmentalists, is calling for the committee to change the site location for the school, also known as Northeast Metro Tech or “the Voke,” and to build on already-developed land instead of moving into the forest.

On Monday, a judge struck down an injunction the group had filed against the Northeast Metropolitan Regional Vocational School District district to halt construction, writing that the injunction was not in the public interest and the contractors are free to work outside in areas away from protected wetlands. But the group remained undeterred.

“We are not giving up this fight,” Robin Bergman, who is part of the coalition, wrote in a statement. “We believe that saving the forest, and moving the school to existing developed land, is in the public interest.”

With $11 million already spent on the site, however, the building committee says it’s too late to turn around.

“They say it’s too far gone; it’s irreversible,” said Kavita Karighattam, part of the coalition. “But if you destroy a forest … that is irreversible.”

Massachusetts is slowly working to incorporate sustainability into new development policy. But one sector has been left behind: new school developments.

The Massachusetts School Building Authority, which approved the school project, has been the target of environmental concerns in the past; earlier this summer, critics said the authority failed to pledge to fossil-free schools as it received billions in funding for new construction projects. Now sustainability decisions have come down to the local level, leaving Wakefield residents resentful after feeling left in the dark on a crucial project.

The Northeast Metro Tech Building Committee did not respond to the Globe for comment. However, its website accuses the the Save the Forest group of pushing a “NIMBY agenda” and of spreading “egregious falsehoods” regarding the project.

The 15 acres of undeveloped land set aside for the project include upland forest and wetlands, and were once part of the 652-acre Breakheart Reservation, according to a complaint filed by the coalition. In the 1960s, the state sold 60 acres from the Breakheart Reservation to the Northeast Metro Tech school district to build the high school. The remaining forest on the property is home to rich wildlife, including two endangered species that would be harmed by habitat loss.

The high school serves students from 12 surrounding communities in the area, and the new building would increase student capacity from 1,250 to 1,600. The project costs upwards of $300 million and was set to begin construction this year, with completion slated for 2026. With a $141 million grant from the Massachusetts School Building Authority, the communities must pick up the rest of the check.

Construction materials were set up near the Northeast Metro Tech school. SUZANNE KREITER/GLOBE STAFF

The Northeast Metro Tech building committee plans to construct the new 386,000-square-foot school building atop the hill where the forest is located. Construction plans will require the contractor to cut down 2,000 trees and blast a 650-foot wide and 30 foot to 35 foot high cliff into the hillside, dramatically altering the landscape. The committee website claims only 260 trees would be impacted, though a March 2023 review by the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act Office found that “2,097 trees would be altered.”

“This is a beloved forest,” said Karighattam. “[This project] came as a shock to many, which is why we gained so many signatures,” referring to the Save the Forest group’s petition that has garnered 7,300 signatures since October.

“Considering the climate crisis, we have to save every forest,” Karighattam said.

The building committee originally had three site options: the school’s current sports practice field; the current baseball and football fields, which the 2016 pre-feasibility study recommended; and atop the hill. The last option, which the committee ultimately selected, has been criticized as the “most destructive and expensive option” by the Save the Forest group.

“We don’t want to oppose the school,” said Jennifer Fanning, part of Friends of Wakefield’s Northeast Metro Tech Forest. “It’s about using the money to build a better school on a better site.”

In an op-ed the building committee published on its website, members wrote the other sites were “already deemed substandard, and that may have even more expensive and challenging environmental requirements.”

“The alternative sites did not undergo the detailed analysis that the approved location did and certainly would have included much more blasting, environmental impacts to not only non-jurisdictional wetlands but also streams, rivers and wetlands,” wrote school building committee chair Theodore Nickole, School Committee chair Deborah Davis, and School Committee vice chair Judith Dyment.

In a January 2022 special district election, voters decided 86.2 percent in favor of the project. However, the Save the Forest group claims that adequate notice of the vote was not provided and less than 10,000 voters from across the 12 communities served by the school turned out.

Fanning also submitted an Open Meeting Law complaint to the state’s attorney general office, arguing that the building committee did not post meeting notices for nearly two years of planning the project, and dates for decisive votes were not made explicit beforehand.

When the committee sought approval from the Wakefield Conservation Commission, which protects wetlands, the commission refused, citing storm water management concerns and alterations to bordering vegetated wetlands within the buffer zone, which could affect wildlife habitat and ground water.

“A new roadway they were going to build was in close proximity to the wetland,” said Rebecca Davis, who is part of the Conservation Department. “That was the strongest driver for the Commission’s denial.”

According to spokesperson Fabienne Alexis, the school appealed this decision to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection on June 14, and the appeal was still under review as of Tuesday morning. However, Gilbane Building Company, the construction manager at-risk, sent a notice to the Conservation Commission that it was planning to begin removing trees and vegetation outside of the areas up for dispute in mid-August after receiving a federal permit regulating storm water management.

When environmentalists heard that the contractor was planning to cut down the trees before MassDEP delivered its decision, they filed the injunction in Middlesex Superior Court against the project, but Judge Salim Tabit struck down the injunction on Monday.

In its planning, the school building committee was required to seek environmental review for any part of the project that may overlap with ecologically significant areas marked in a BioMap produced by the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife every four years. The committee submitted its plans for review by the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act office just 23 days before the release of the new BioMap that categorized the NEMT forest as a core habitat and critical natural landscape.

“This project does not meet regulatory thresholds that require MEPA review,” said Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs spokesperson Danielle Burney in a statement. “EEA leadership has met with local organizations to discuss best practices for forest preservation and will continue open, transparent, and meaningful engagement as we work to further integrate climate-smart practices into project site selection and design.”

“We love the Voke,” Wakefield resident and environmental scientist Christine Rioux said. “How can we be NIMBYs if all we’re saying is to move the project a quarter mile to the other part of the site?”