Reporter Jackie Majerus wrote this story:
Two properties on Chippens Hill make up the latest – and possibly final – site being proposed for a new, 900-student, K-8 school to be built in tandem with the one planned in Forestville.
A 17-acre site at the corner of Clark and Matthews streets and an adjoining 12-acre parcel on Matthews Street won the unanimous support of the West Bristol School Building Committee on Wednesday for the site of the new school.
"This was an important step," said Superintendent Phil Streifer.
Before the vote, Streifer pressed the committee to approve the site, warning that time was running out for collecting the maximum possible in state reimbursement on the project.
"There are no other sites to consider at this time," said Streifer. "We are now down to this site or no schools because of the time frame. We've lost months and months and months. The decision is, schools or no schools."
City councilors are expected to weigh in on the location when they meet on Tuesday. If they approve of it, councilors are likely to refer the proposal to the Bristol Planning Commission for a recommendation.
"I'll support this property," Mayor Art Ward told the committee Wednesday.
Mike Audette, principal of O'Connell School and chairman of the West Bristol School Building Committee, said the land on Matthews Street had been among those initially proposed for the school, but wasn't ever seriously considered because it was deemed too far away from the West End.
"We've looked at everything in the West End," said Audette. "I really would like to have a beautiful site right there on Park Street. We don't have it."
Audette said the new site is less than a mile from the former Scalia sand pit that was twice proposed and rejected as a location for the school.
Streifer said the 17-acre property would likely cost about $880,000. He didn't give a price for the 12-acre lot next door.
The real cost of the whole project to build two K-8 schools, said Streifer, is $120 to $130 million. He said the state would reimburse about $96 million.
"What's at stake here is giving up that investment," said Streifer.
Streifer said he met earlier Wednesday with City Planner Alan Weiner and others about alternative site and learned that the structural issues on the property are manageable.
"All the infrastructure is there," said Streifer, who said the main access route to the property is Clark Avenue. "This site meets many of the criteria that Scalia was rejected for."
The corner property includes a historic home on about an acre of the land, right at the intersection of Matthews and Clark.
Streifer said it would be possible to entirely avoid the structure, built in the 1790s, and even to subdivide it out of the parcel.
Streifer said the 17-acre parcel would probably be large enough, but that the district may want to enlarge it with a portion of the 12-acre site if the city would like to add athletic fields there.
"It should definitely be a consideration," said Ward.
Though the owner of the 17-acre corner parcel didn't attend the meeting, family members who own and live on the 12-acre property were there to listen.
"I'm not happy," said Betty Houle, who lives in the house on the 12-acre site. Houle said she grew up on a farm that included that land, which is now owned in large part by her mother, Dorothy Knibbs, who lives on the original farmland but not on a piece eyed by the school district.
Houle said she only learned Friday that school officials may want part of the property where she lives and is still getting used to the whole idea. She said the house she lives in is not historic, but whether she would be willing to move would depend on the money offered and the time frame.
"There's a lot of unanswered questions," said Houle.
Knibbs, who attended the school building committee meeting with Houle and two other daughters, said the farmland included property on both sides of Matthews Street. She said she's lived on the property for 62 years.
Streifer said he is sure the district can work around the houses on both properties.
"We were trying to find a way to do this without displacing people against their will," said Streifer.
Ward had been one of the three votes on the council against using the former Scalia sand pit for the new school – a location that was narrowly approved by city councilors but so overwhelmingly rejected by planning commissioners that city councilors could not override it without a councilor who opposed it changing his vote.
The mayor had said he wanted the school to be built on the former Roberts property, which the city already owns. Ward had wanted the state lawmakers who represent Bristol to try to get an extension of the city's deadline for state help, and pass legislation that would allow use of the former Roberts property without having to replace the open space.
Now Ward says he still wants the state delegation to do that, as a fallback to the Matthews Street site in case there are "unforeseen consequences."
But even if they succeed, Ward said, relief from the state probably wouldn't be until May and that delay could jeopardize the whole project.
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