Graphic of proposed new vocational school building in Wakefield


WAKEFIELD – After seven months of public hearings, the Conservation Commission voted last night to deny Northeast Metropolitan Regional Vocational School’s Notice of Intent for the construction of new school, parking lots and athletic fields in a wooded area off Hemlock Road that is owned by the school.

The unanimous 5-0 vote came at the end of a two and a half hour meeting last night at Town Hall that was also streamed live via Zoom.

Commissioner Haley Ballou made the motion to deny the project, which was seconded by Commissioner Peter Miller. The other three commissioners voting to deny were Kenneth Alepedis, Jim Luciani and chairman Bob Romano.

No specific reasons were stated last night for the denial, but Chairman Romano explained after the meeting that there are two reasons that the ConCom can deny a project: insufficient information, or the project will result in an alteration to resource areas.

Wakefield’s Conservation Agent will now write up the formal decision, which will enumerate the grounds for the denial. Commissioners took their vote last night in order to allow sufficient time for the decision to be written and submitted to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection before the June 6 deadline. (The commission closed the hearing on the project at its May 16 meeting and has 21 days from that date to file its decision.)

Chairman Bob Romano said last night that the commission fully expects Northeast Metro Tech to appeal the denial.

“They will appeal, for sure,” he said.

In 2017, Northeast Metro Tech was accepted into the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s funding program for the construction of a new school. The regional vocational technical high school serves a 12-community district including: Chelsea, Malden, Melrose, North Reading, Reading, Revere, Saugus, Stoneham, Wakefield, Winchester, Winthrop, and Woburn.

In January of 2022, voters in communities that send students to Northeast Metro Tech approved building a new $317 million, state-of-the-art vocational school. A total of 9,036 voters in the 12 Northeast communities voted for a new school and 1,567 opposed it.

But the project has not been without critics. After the overwhelming district-wide vote to approve the project, a group of activists emerged, claiming that they didn’t know that the plans called for the school to be built in the wooded hillside location. They suggested that the school somehow “hid” the location from the voters until after the election.

The activists maintain that the area proposed for the new school is a “core habitat” for various wildlife species. They also object to the planned removal of trees, although Northeast Metro Tech has pledged to replace every tree that is taken down.

Critics have maintained that the school should be built on already developed land, such as the existing playing fields. But NEMT officials insist that the wooded site is the only option that would work for the project.

NEMT School Superintendent David DiBarri explained last November that when the site selection process took place several years ago, engineers and architects looked at three possible locations for the new school, including the “upper field” area, the “lower field” area and the wooded hillside area owned by the school that was ultimately chosen.

DiBarri admitted that he had hoped to build the new school on the current (upper) football field. But based on NEMT’s goals to increase student enrollment and due to the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s size requirements for such a school, it simply would not have fit on the upper football field area.

In order to fit the new school on the football field, he said, the school would not be able to increase student enrollment and in fact would probably have had to reduce the number of students. Last year alone, he noted, over 1,000 students vied for just 330 available seats at the school.

The problem with the lower field area, DiBarri said last November, is that it is largely wetland and is not buildable. He further noted that that area abuts private property which would have necessitated a taking by eminent domain for egress, which was unlikely to succeed. That site would also have meant construction occurring right next to the existing school, which he said would not have met with MSBA or local approval.

Now, the school project remains on hold pending NEMT’s expected appeal of the Conservation Commission’s denial.