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.”