June 18, 2001
Board of Trustees
1400 Lowell Road
Concord, Massachusetts 01742
Ladies & Gentlemen:
Last weekend, I had the pleasure of attending your information meeting on the proposed expansion of the Middlesex campus across the wetland adjacent to the School and Estabrook Woods. My interest stems from being a parent of a recent Middlesex graduate, citizen of Concord, neighbor on Lowell Road, frequent visitor to the Woods, and an environmental engineer by trade. I appreciate the Board’s efforts to promote the School’s long-term interests, to mitigate development impacts, and to preserve Bateman’s Pond and adjacent upland areas. It is unfortunate that opportunity for public comments was extremely limited at the meeting. I have several concerns about the wisdom and potential impacts of the Plan on both the School and the Woods. You have probably heard most of these points before, so I appreciate your patience.
It seems that the plan is to build a bridge across the wetland without a clear idea of what will happen next, other than construction of a football field and tennis courts. This does not strike me as the best kind of planning, considering the economic investment, environmental risks, and potential availability of alternatives with lower incremental costs and risks. Constructing a bridge and sewer line sends a message to future Boards that more extensive development is justified for whatever purpose they see fit. This message will linger long after institutional memories of your good intentions fade (including stated intentions to maintain the size of the student body and to place a high priority on environmental values). The difficulty of gleaning past intent was exemplified by extensive speculation at the meeting as to whether the plan was consistent with the wishes of the original benefactor(s?) of the land.
The purpose of the project was stated more generally to promote “uniqueness”, so that the School will remain competitive for top students. There is nothing unique about a bridge, sewer line, football field, or tennis court. This is in stark contrast to an undisturbed wetland adjacent to the largest wild area in Eastern Massachusetts. It does not seem likely that yet another athletic field will attract more top students than an undisturbed wetland available for students’ enjoyment and study. The implication is that a “top student” at Middlesex is more of an athlete than an intellectual or environmentalist. Having been a neighbor for 21 years and School parent for 3, my impression is that this is inconsistent with the current character and trend in the student body.
In viewing a site plan such as this, the public tends to see only the hole in the donut. This can create a false impression of minimal impact. Impact on adjacent lands and resident wildlife extends well beyond the edge of the football field. The donut (i.e. “buffer zone”) may extend well into the Woods and significantly reduce the regional habitat for wildlife species most sensitive to development.
Complying with regulations does not guarantee that no significant environmental impact will occur. Regulations are political compromises. Scientific uncertainty associated with characterizing impacts gets lost in this process. Regulations do not reflect site-specific circumstances that may require tighter controls or justify looser ones. In this case, a conservative approach seems appropriate because of the unusually high resource values of the wetland and adjacent Woods. Because of scientific uncertainty, limitations in control technology, and climatologic variations, best efforts to minimize impacts do not eliminate environmental risks associated with the construction and “operation” of such a development. For example, an extreme storm event could overwhelm stormwater controls, particularly during the construction phase. The resulting discharge of sediment and other contaminants (e.g. nutrients, pesticides) could cause irreversible damage to the adjacent wetland. Similarly, sewer lines have been known to rupture…
One of the speakers at the meeting stated that the development could proceed without damaging the relationship between the School and the Town. I was very surprised to hear this, in light of strong opposition from the Town’s Natural Resources Committee. It is unusual for a single un-elected resident to speak for the Town. Concord has gone to great lengths to protect open space and foster environmental values. Some might condone the plan; others might view it as slap in Thoreau’s face. While there is always diversity of views, supporting the development would be inconsistent with what I believe to be the Town’s fundamental character and heritage.
I would liked to have asked one question at the meeting: “Does the current student body support the plan?”. I have a strong sense that the answer to this question is “no”. Opposition was expressed by the valedictorian at the graduation ceremony this year and echoed by members of the senior class, a large percentage of which was wearing Estabrook Woods buttons. If the purpose of the meeting was to provide an objective forum for educating alumni on this issue, it seems appropriate to have included students (or at least mention the student-created website voicing strong opposition).
As discussed at the meeting, the plan was conceived in the early 1990’s with unrealistic expectations about significant environmental issues, extent of opposition, and time frame. In my experience, protracted legal battles over environmental issues tend to take on lives of their own. As the legal battle rages, original objectives can be clouded and replaced by the legal mission. Meanwhile, changes in the big picture may render the plan obsolete and not in the current best interest of its proponents. The plan seems anachronistic (i.e., a dinosaur), in view of current student opinions, societal drift towards environmental values, and questions whether it is consistent with wishes of the original benefactors of the land. Someday, alumni may be more interested in returning to Middlesex to walk in Estabrook Woods than to attend homecoming football games.
I urge the Board to consider alternatives that would accomplish the School’s objectives with less environmental risk and would be less divisive both inside and outside of the Middlesex community. There is an opportunity here to demonstrate that growth can be accomplished through more efficient use of existing developed areas, as an alternative to irreversible sprawl. Perhaps the issue could be taken to a vote of current students recent alumni (say, last 5-10 years?). I would be willing to give you good odds on the outcome of such a vote, which would provide the best measure of future alumni opinions and attitudes.
My wife and I are extremely grateful for the growth that our son has experienced at Middlesex as a result of opportunities and challenges provided under the guidance of the Board, administration, and faculty. We trust that you will continue to make good decisions on this and other issues of vital importance to the School. We are enclosing a check for the Centennial Fund with the desire that the funds be used for land acquisition or environmental studies.
William W. Walker , Jr., Ph.D.