Planning Board Signs off on New Elementary School


Architect's rendering of the new Fort River Elementary School. Aerial view from Southeast. Photo:

This meeting was held over Zoom and was recorded. It can be viewed here.

Doug Marshall (Chair), Bruce Coldham, Jesse Mager, Johanna Neumann, Fred Hartwell, and Karin Winter. Absent: Janet McGowan

Staff: Chris Brestrup (Planning Director) and Pam Field Sadler (Assistant)

Design Team Makes Minor Tweaks to Exterior of School
The planned new elementary school at Fort River gained mostly favorable reviews at the public hearing on January 17, 2024, but the Planning Board had a few suggestions. Tim Cooper of DiNisco Design came to this meeting to present some solutions. Following his presentation and subsequent discussion, the board unanimously approved the requested site plan permit and special permit for the project.

Prior to the discussion, Planning Director Chris Brestrup pointed out that five affirmative votes were needed for the special permit for building height and raising the site by two-feet to cope with the high water table. For the site plan review for the rest of the project, four affirmative votes were required. Both Fred Hartwell and Karin Winter missed the January 17 meeting, but Winter watched the video and hence was eligible to vote.

Because of some questions from Planning Board members about the process for selecting the site for the new school at the previous meeting, Cooper reviewed the history of the project. Relevant dates were:

December 2021: Site selection and design process begins

June 2022: Site selection complete and design option selected

March 2023: Schematic design complete

May 2023: Funding agreement approved by Town Council and town override vote

March 2024: Early site work package begins

June 2024: Project goes out to bid

September 2024: Construction begins

September 2026: New school opens

Fall 2026: Demolition of existing school and construction of athletic fields

At the time the school opens, only 75% of the parking lot will be available, because the northern part of the lot and the main entrance to the north will be used for construction vehicles. Cooper said that a temporary traffic flow and parking pattern will need to be developed for the first few months of the 2026 school year until the demolition and site work is completed.

In explaining the site selection, Cooper stated that the Fort River site was larger than Wildwood,  but had many regulatory issues due to the nearby riverfront and wetlands. The Wildwood site was smaller and presented difficulty with making a safe access from Strong Street. In the end, the building committee decided that Fort River was a better site, providing less disruption to education during construction and to athletic fields that are a community asset.

New Changes to Parking Lots
In response to concerns of the Planning Board, the design team moved two solar canopies that were too close to the western lot line and the houses there. One canopy was placed near the van drop off site at the south end of the school, and the other near the parent drop off site near the main entrance. The latter canopy will also offer some covered bicycle parking. The canopies are 14 feet high, so all vehicles will be able to clear them. A line of 13 red cedar trees was planned for the western side of the parking lot to screen the school from the houses on South East Street.

In addition, a raised walkway was created from the sidewalk on the south side of the bus entrance to allow pedestrians and bicyclists to safely cross the drive to the main entrance. 

There was more controversy about placing a small traffic island in the parking lot that was suggested by Janet McGowan at the January meeting. Karin Winter felt the small island added some relief to the large expanse of asphalt in the parking lot. However, Planning Board Chair Doug Marshall did not see the need for the island and felt it would present an obstacle to snowplows. The board decided to leave the option for an island up to the Elementary School Building Committee (ESBC).

Winter also voiced concern about the size of the parking lot, which has 175 spaces. Cooper said the designers and ESBC have been asking if the parking lot could be made smaller for the past two years, but school officials insisted that the school needed all 175 spaces to accommodate all staff and a limited number of visitors. Town Councilor Cathy Schoen (District 1), chair of the ESBC, stated that the new school will be home to many of the district’s special needs students, who often have paraprofessionals who come for part of the school day and must be able to park. 

Cooper stated that the suggested changes to the parking lot were “de minimus” and would not affect the projects approval from the Conservation Commission. 

Other Design Concerns
Planning Board member Bruce Coldham asked about the noise level of the school’s generator. Cooper said the level was 50 decibels during the day and slightly higher if it was used at night, but it would only be used at night during a power failure. Coldham pointed out that 50 decibels was quieter than the heat pump water heaters that many people are putting in their homes. He was very happy with the revised design.

The board was unclear about whether the ventilation apparatus for the cafeteria on the roof of the building needed to be screened. A screen was planned for the front, but the piping would probably be visible from the far end of the athletic fields. The Planning Board felt that screening was probably not necessary.

Occupants of Neighboring Bacon Wilson Building Concerned About Increased Traffic
Attorney Tom Reidy of Bacon Wilson said the owners of the law office building at 6 South East Street were concerned about how the changes in traffic on South East Street would affect their building. The driveway for 6 South East Street is near the main entrance and exit from the school., and Reidy was concerned that the cars entering and exiting the school would interfere with the clients coming to the law offices. 

The traffic pattern on the town roads around the school is not determined by the school design team. The town has hired the engineering firm CDM Smith to design the traffic flow near the school. Planning Director Chris Brestrup said the town expected the report from CDM Smith in the next few weeks. Reidy asked that the town review the traffic conditions a year after the school opens. This condition was added to the school permit.

Schoen pointed out that, in the past, Fort River School had more students than the 575 slated to attend the new school, but she did say that since the pandemic, more parents are driving their children to school, so drop-off and pick-up traffic is heavier than in past years.

Both the special permit and the site plan review for the school were approved with 5-0 votes of the Planning Board. 

The Planning Board will next meet on February 21.

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