By Bill Kirk
---- — ANDOVER — A proposal by a River Road school for special needs children to tie into a sewer line in neighboring Tewksbury has touched off a lengthy debate among town officials over future development in the neighborhood.
Melmark New England, 461 River Road, a private, non-profit school for children with autism and other, similar disorders, wants to hook up to the privately owned sewer line so it can build a new kitchen. Currently, the school’s Title 5 septic system is not built to handle a full-service, institutional food-making and handling facility.
The executive director of Melmark, Rita Gardner, said at a recent meeting that the school wants to expand its kitchen so it can serve students and staff hot meals while also teaching them culinary skills.
“That would be a huge asset to the kids on-site,” she said at a meeting last month, noting that older students in the school, ages 16 to 19, are getting jobs in the food services industry and this would add to the school’s vocational offerings. Currently, the school has meals delivered by an outside vendor, a requirement of their Title 5 certificate.
Several parents at the meeting urged selectmen to approve the plan, saying the school does great work and should be supported by the town.
But selectmen are leery, saying that since Melmark has an option to buy the adjacent, vacant, 70-acre Franciscan Center property, they may be interested in developing it into some kind of affordable housing project, or something else.
The property, along with some adjacent open space, was recently rezoned by Town Meeting and is now residential, 1-acre zoning, with an elderly overlay district. The zoning gives it numerous possibilities, including single-family homes, cluster housing, elderly housing and other, similar uses.
“I don’t see anything on the horizon, but Melmark has an option on the Franciscan property,” said Selectmen chairman Alex Vispoli. “With the change in zoning, I would absolutely expect development in that area. We have to be very careful. This type of request raised enough red flags.”
To tie into the sewer line, which is privately owned, selectmen from Andover have to vote to approve what’s known as an Inter-Municipal Agreement, or IMA, because the sewer line goes into Tewksbury and then into Lowell, where it is linked to that city’s wastewater treatment plant. The agreement also has to be approved by Tewksbury and Lowell.
Vispoli and others on the board repeated several times during recent meetings that they wanted the agreement written in such a way that it restricts what Melmark can do on the site.
“Can the IMA detail that this is explicitly for this building and this use only?” he asked town counsel Tom Urbelis. “The only additional use is for the kitchen. Is Melmark OK with that?”
Selectman Mary Lyman added, “that agreement would help enormously.”
Part of the concern of Selectmen and other town officials is that the sewer line has a capacity of 800,000 gallons of wastewater a day. Currently, it only uses about 40,000 gallons a day.
Melmark officials said at last week’s meeting that they were fine with revised wording restricting what they do on their property.
Even though Selectmen have already held two or three meetings on the subject, they decided last week to send the IMA back to the lawyers for more revisions. Selectmen are expected to vote on the final wording of the agreement at their meeting tonight at 5:15 p.m.
Town Manager Buzz Stapczyinski said the revised wording of the amended IMA should “make Selectmen feel comfortable.”
It is not the first time the town has dealt with this sewer line and development concerns along River Road.
More than 10 years ago, a Tewksbury developer won approval from the town to move the St. Clare monastery from its old location - site of the Avalon development - across the street to a new facility. As part of that, the developer installed a private sewer line into Tewksbury.
Later, when Avalon Andover was proposed, part of the deal was that it would tie into the private sewer line.
The Zoning Board of Appeals approved Avalon in 2002 as a Chapter 40B project. Under Chapter 40B, developers can get high-density projects approved more easily if they include affordable housing. The developer promised 29 of the 115 units would be affordable.
Both neighbors and the town appealed the project, and both lost. In 2007, Avalon was built.
Melmark has been before the board in the past as well.
Melmark was started in 1998 in Woburn and moved into the former Christian Formation Center on River Road in 2006 following a $4.4 million renovation of the 66,000-square-foot facility. Originally, school founders wanted to tie into the private sewer system but that proposal was rejected by the town. Instead, the school built a $150,000 septic system.
While the school is hoping for the sewer tie-in so it can cook meals in-house, it is also apparently having trouble with its Title 5 system.
“They are running into problems with the existing septic,” said Board of Health director Paul Carbone.
School officials could not be reached for comment last week as the school was closed for during the July 4th holiday week.
Two large drain pipes are sitting near the entrance to the school, so it appears Melmark is ready to commence the sewer project.