On May 30, the Select Board and School Committee received a letter from lawyers representing neighbors of the Baldwin School. The letter outlined the obstacles in the way of developing the proposed Baldwin North site into a new elementary school.
Specifically, the letter served as a reminder that state and federal law protecting parks and open spaces would clash directly with any attempt to build at Baldwin North.
Nevertheless, two weeks later the boards voted overwhelmingly to put Baldwin North into play. This despite a lack of any substantive support for the project throughout the just completed Ninth School Alternative Site Study.
The letter, signed by attorney Stephen Wald of Boston, reads in part, “a new school at ‘Baldwin North’ will not be able to use Baldwin Park as a dedicated and secure playground for students, either during recess or otherwise.”
Federal protections that resulted from a 1976 grant killed an earlier Baldwin proposal that called for building on Baldwin Park. Major alterations necessary at the adjacent Soule Park were complicated by an Article 97 provision that calls for a land swap of equal or greater value when protected parkland is compromised.
That’s how the Select Board got into the politically unpopular effort to take nearby Pine Manor College by eminent domain – first as a land swap and later as a school site when Baldwin fell apart.
The elevation of Baldwin North, including a crude drawing that drew the moniker “MCI-Baldwin,” from also-ran to serious contender caught by surprise virtually everyone who has been closely following the elementary school space issue.
The Wald letter further states, “Under the contract between the National Park Service (NPS) and the Commonwealth, which the town assumed when it received its LWCF grant, the entirety of Baldwin Park must continue to be used for the ‘public outdoor recreation uses specified in the project proposal.’ “
If that wasn’t enough, the Wald letter comes on the heels of an April 30 memo by Town Counsel which reads in reference to Baldwin Park, “The southern half of the Baldwin property is protected under Article 97.” It further states, “Land benefiting from an LWCF grant must remain accessible for ‘public outdoor recreational use.’ This could conflict with any attempt to use the southern half of the Baldwin parcel as dedicated playspace for a new school. Open access to the playground could raise security concerns, limit the playground’s usefulness during recess periods, and could lead to additional maintenance or replacement costs if it accelerated wear and tear on the facilities.”
These warnings were not heeded by the Select Board and School Committee.
So on July 26, Wald penned another letter to town officials, noting that any school at Baldwin North would need to use Baldwin and Soule parks for educational purposes.
The letter reads in part, “Changing Baldwin Park’s use from a pastoral area with one tennis court to land used by 500-plus students for recess, physical education and other educational purposes would unlawfully convert the use of the property in violation of the LWCF restrictions.”
Wald characterizes Baldwin as similar to the Westfield site that was at the center of a much-anticipated landmark Article 97 decision handed up by the state Supreme Judicial Court last year – one that strengthened Article 97 and conferred its status on a whole host of parks throughout Massachusetts that were previously thought to have dubious protection.
Did the members of the Select Board and School Committee read and comprehend the Westfield decision? Did they read the memo issued by their own Town Counsel? Did they read either of Wald’s letters? Did they note that the recent listening sessions convened by Dr. Joseph Connelly were bereft of support for Baldwin North?
The actions of the Select Board and School Committee with regard to Baldwin truly boggle the mind. At this point, about $1 million has been spent on Baldwin as a potential school site. Town Meeting will have a chance to pull the plug on this project in favor of superior efforts at Driscoll and Pierce schools in November.
Richard Nangle is a Town Meeting member in Precinct 15. His email is email@example.com.