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Sandy Hook School Task Force Hears Site Options



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“Dumbfounded” was the word that spilled from Sandy Hook resident Aimee Tabor’s lips, following a 2½-hour presentation to the members of the Sandy Hook School Task Force responsible for presenting a recommendation to the Board of Education as to the future of Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Ms Tabor was the first of several residents present to come to the microphone, at the Friday evening, April 12 meeting, the second in a series of four scheduled Task Force meetings.

Ms Tabor, residents, and task force members had just finished hearing an overview by deputy director of Land Use Rob Sibley, BL Companies principal John Mancini, and Turner Construction Company project executive Michael DiNallo explaining the pros and cons of 17 out of approximately 40 sites considered as possible places in or just outside of the Sandy Hook School district that would be suitable for a renovated or new Sandy Hook Elementary School.

(A PDF of the Sandy Hook School Site Evaluation Study is available here. Download may take a minute or two.)

Three of the five top locations identified by Mr Sibley's group lie within Sandy Hook School district, including the site of the existing school on Dickinson Drive; two are on the outskirts.

Twelve of the sites Mr Sibley walked the task force members through — fat binders with detailed technical information on each site sitting in front of each member — were in what the technical experts called “Tier III” or “Tier II” sites. Those sites, Mr Sibley said, had been deemed less desirable than the five sites that they had selected as most probable for a future school.

The technical team was guided by technical criteria that in turn were shepherded by the guiding principles discussed at the first meeting that came out of conversations with community members and individuals.

Reasons for a site falling into one of the two less desirable categories often included lack of appropriate utilities (including 3-phase electric, sewers, natural gas, energy, and public water), wetlands considerations, proximity to municipal facilities, availability of property (some sites are privately owned), poor sight lines, and poor access. Several of the Tier II and Tier III properties are located off of or near Route 34.

Some properties would take longer to develop, due to slope, fill needed, and other topographical issues.

 Neil Chaudhary questioned why the proximity of a municipal facility was considered.

“A municipal facility nearby would probably be a good thing,” responded Mr Sibley, and was one of the guiding principles concerning safety.

In spending the first 1-1/2 hours discussing the reasons12 properties presented fell outside the desirable guidelines, Mr Sibley was responding to a request from Newtown First Selectman Patricia Llodra, one of the 28 members of the task force.

“Early on, I asked [the technical team] to make sure to share with [task force members] every site,” said Ms Llodra. “It’s important to know what was not found to be feasible,” going forward on the decision of a site, she said.

Using a computer program, initially the technical team made up of Mr Sibley, George Benson, director of land use, Gino Faiella, director of buildings and grounds for the Newtown School System, James W. Fielding, John Mancini, and Scott Pellman of architectural firm BL Companies in Meriden, Todd Perry of Cherry Hill Construction, North Branford, Phil Clark of Claris Construction, Newtown, Michael A. Galante of Frederick P. Clark Associates, Inc, Fairfield, and Michael DiNallo, Chris Smith, Kevin King, and Susan M. Scholler of Turner Construction Company, Milford, determined all properties in the designated district  werecomprised of 20 or more acres. Plots of 20 acres or more ensure finding property with at least 12 usable acres, Mr Mancini explained, the amount needed for the project. Sandy Hook Elementary School currently sits on a 12.2-acre property.

Two of the Tier II sites “made it pretty far” admitted Mr Sibley. Site 16, at 96 Toddy Hill Road, had many pluses. However, insight from the bus company revealed that because this 28-acre property is within the Middle Gate School district, it would affect the timeline for school buses.

“Once a site is in use, it has an impact on how kids are transported to that site,” Mrs Llodra reminded the group. “It’s important to consider this.”

Site 17, where Treadwell Park is located, also made it further along. However, steep slope characteristics, improvements to utilities, and the impact on the town having to replace the park left it in the Tier II category.

Most Probable Sites Defined

Turning to the Tier I properties, Mr DiNallo explained that they had established a complete evaluation of each. Architects and engineers developed prototypes, one for a renovation and one for a new school building. He emphasized that the team was not designing a school, and that the prototypes and renderings in the compilation of information were only “reasonable models to help us do a site evaluation.”

The first location is at 12 Dickinson Drive, where Sandy Hook School is currently located. At the existing site, three scenarios were presented, with several options.

In the first scenario, more than half of the existing structure would be removed, and the building “gutted to roof and frame,” Mr DiNallo said. The classrooms most heavily impacted by the events of 12/14 would be completely removed, he said.

Another scenario for that site was to situate a new building with main access from Washington Avenue along Crestwood Drive, with the building oriented facing south.  A similar scenario presented a new building with a somewhat different bus/parent drop off situation. The main entrance and exit would again be on and off of Crestwood.

Also presented was a scenario there in which full entry would be off of Washington Avenue, but the exit to the property would be via a new drive going out to Riverside Road.

A similar entrance-exit process could be considered with renovation to the property, said Mr Sibley, in response to a question from member Jeffrey Capeci.

“Our goal is to try to make operation of buses, parent, and pre-k drop-off independent of each other,” Mr DiNallo said. The renovation and new building options also include expanded space (45 classrooms vs the current 35, and approximately 99,000 square feet vs the current 69,000 square feet at Sandy Hook School) to accommodate 600 students in a pre-k to grade 5 school.

The second site in the top five is at 7 & 9 Bennett’s Bridge Road, just beyond the intersection of Osborne Hill Road. The primary entrance to the school would be off of Bennett’s Bridge. Despite the fact that this site lacks all utilities, the site is big and the soil is good, Mr DiNallo pointed out, meaning that an on-site septic system would be feasible. The barn and silo currently located there could remain.

One of the biggest benefits to the site is the future potential to the town, as it would allow for expansion of Parks and Recreation fields.

Site Three is at 21 Mile Hill South Road, on the corner of Keating Road. The entrance would be off Mile Hill South and the exit would be to Keating Drive. Demolition of Cochran House, which now occupies this Fairfield Hills site, would be required.

Ms Llodra raised the question of securing a school property in a public place.

“The purpose of the [Fairfield Hills] campus is to be open to the public,” she cautioned.

Mr DiNallo assured her that each design has considerations for safety.

When Joseph Kearney pointed out that this site might require two demolitions to begin construction — that of Cochran House and the existing Sandy Hook School — Mr Mancini responded that there was no determination of the Sandy Hook structure in this case.

The fourth site is at the end of Commerce Road. A long entrance would lead off of Commerce Road to the main entrance. Wetlands are a consideration, and Mary Ann Jacob noted that development of the site has been problematic in the past because of wetlands issues.

Site Five is at 28 Riverside Road. Three lots there encompass the SAC ball field. This site has many of the desired utilities, and is close to municipal facilities. A main boulevard-style entrance would come off of Riverside Road, with the exit also off of Riverside Road.

Robert Merola said that while he understood that the renderings were merely prototypes, he wondered if there had been any consideration for a two-story building on a smaller footprint.

“Certainly going forward, these options can be considered,” Mr DiNallo said, and reiterated that the same prototype had been imposed on each site plan simply to not “muddy the decision” the Task Force must make.

Public Comment Raises Questions

Also included in the binder of site possibilities, said Mr DiNallo, is a cost page for each site, breaking down on and off site work, demolition, land acquisition, and other construction costs. A construction schedule analysis projected approximately 17 to 21 months to complete renovation or new construction, information that led to remarks by Ms Tabor during public comment

“I am dumbfounded,” Ms Tabor said. “It seems glaringly obvious [what is missing from this presentation]: a basic renovation at this site. What was the criteria used that said we needed to lose half of the building – and two years out? Where is the option of a couple million dollars [for a basic renovation]?” she wondered.

The lowest construction cost listed is over $40 million.

Bringing staff and children back to the current site is becoming less problematic, Ms Tabor said, as counseling and time take effect.

“We need time and counseling, not brick and mortar. The school [building] is not the problem,” said Ms Tabor.

Sandy Hook School family members Andrew Paley, Peter Barresi, and Mergim Bajraliu also spoke, agreeing with Ms Tabor.

“In the history of tragedies all over the world,” said Mr Paley, “they rebuild and go on. It’s something to think about. He added, “Sandy Hook School is a perfect placement where it is now.”

Mr Barresi also saw the lack of a “basic strip down” as a missing component to consideration of the future of the school.

“Keep the current property,” he said. “The current property can be made secure. My personal opinion is that we should look at a very brief, fast repair of the section and get everyone back.”

Pat Cooney focused on the frustration of not yet hearing Task Force members’ opinions, and concerns for financing renovation or rebuilding. “It’s not free money,” he said.

Mr Cooney also questioned the length of time the projects were slated to take.

“These are long term projects on short term thinking,” he said. “None of these [current Sandy Hook School] kids will ever see it.”

The Impact On Sandy Hook Center

Walter Motyka touched on another aspect of site selection that he hoped Task Force members would keep in mind: the impact on Sandy Hook Center businesses. As part of the group providing funds to those Center businesses adversely affected in the weeks following 12/14, Mr Motyka said that many, while appreciative of the money, expressed the fear that because of lack of traffic and people in the business district since the school moved to its temporary location in Monroe, the businesses may never recover.

“I’m speaking up for small businesses in Sandy Hook,” Mr Motyka said. Mr Paley echoed his concerns.

Ms Tabor returned briefly to the microphone as public comment ended, to stress that she hoped the Board of Education would concede that any family or faculty that found he or she cannot return to the 12 Dickinson Drive site would have the option of going to another school in the Newtown system.

“Give them a little buffer,” she begged.

Richard Haywood, facilitator for the series of meetings, closed the evening by emphasizing to Task Force members that as they reviewed the binder of options this coming week to keep in mind the guiding principles and tech criteria, and to remember that the goal is site selection, not building design.

The third meeting is scheduled for Friday, April 19, from 7 to 9:30 pm, in Council Chambers of the Newtown Municipal Center, at Fairfield Hills.

That meeting will be devoted to narrowing down the options for Sandy Hook Elementary School. The meeting is open to the public, and a time for public comment will be provided.

A hard copy of the site selections will be available in the Land Use office at the Municipal Center after Monday, April 15. An electronic version is expected to be posted to the town website, www.newtown-ct.gov, after April 15.

Last week's article covering the first Task Force meeting listed Mr Sibley and Mr Benson as members of the Sandy Hook School Task Force. They are not.  They are part of the technical team. Members of the Sandy Hook School Task Force are Bill Hart, Laura Roche, Richard Gaines, Keith Alexander, Debbie Leidlein, Cody McCubbin, John Vouros, Jimmy Gaston, Joe Kearney, John Kortze, Richard Oparowski, Carol Walsh, Harry Waterbury, Patrica Llodra, Will Rodgers, Jim Gaston, George Ferguson, Jospeh Girgasky, Paul Lundquist, Robert Merola, Kathy Fetchick, Daniel Honan, Mary Ann Jacob, Dan Wiedemann, Dan Amaral, Neil Chaudhary, Jeff Capeci, and Phil Carroll.

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