WINCHESTER - This spring, residents may have to deal with more than just the usual question of which candidate to support. The Select Board are weighing the idea of placing an override question on the March 30 ballot to fund the final flood mitigation project at the Muraco School.
According to Town Engineer Beth Rudolph, it could cost the town $9.1M if shovels hit dirt in 2023. If the project gets pushed back to 2026, Rudolph estimates costs at around $10.2M, and if it goes even further out, she projects costs around $11.5M for a 2028 start date.
With design and permitting scheduled to last 18-24 months, the town would need to get started as soon as possible to meet the 2023 start date and save approximately $1M. The Select Board got the ball rolling by authorizing the town engineer to retain engineering firm VHB at a cost of $410,000 for design and permitting.
Flood mitigation work began nearly two decades ago and continues today. Currently, the town is working on the Swanton Street Bridge, the penultimate project. If the town passes an override (assuming the question makes the spring town election ballot), it can begin work on the last project, adding two eight-foot culverts at the Muraco Elementary School. Due to railroad and sewer lines, the town will have to coordinate with the MBTA and MWRA.
As State Senator Jason Lewis, who stopped by the Select Board meeting to push for completion of this last project, noted, the town experienced seven major flooding events since the mid-1990s. He specifically pointed to a 2010 storm that saw one homeowner near the Muraco School lose his basement floor when it exploded and caused water to come gushing up into the house.
Sen. Lewis referred to flood mitigation work as an “arduous process” since the town needs state approval for any project, as it can’t make flooding worse for those downstream. He informed the board how the town completed nearly all the projects, with only the Swanton Street Bridge and Muraco culverts left.
“I’m just here to add my voice to help see flood mitigation through to the end,” the senator stressed. “I want to thank (former Select Board member) Jim Johnson, (Assistant Town Manager) Mark Twogood, (former Town Counsel) Wade Welch, current and former members of the board, (former town managers) Mel Kleckner and Richard Howard, and (current Town Manager) Lisa Wong.”
Sen. Lewis added: “This has been an ambitious and successful program.”
The town engineer called the Muraco culvert project the last in both time and upstream order. She referenced the seven storms that Sen. Lewis mentioned, noting that none were considered 100-year storms (the largest was a 60-year storm on March 22, 2001). However, the high school closed for three months back in 1996 due to flooding (and that was only considered a 25-year event).
To date, the town (with the help of Woburn and Medford) completed flood mitigation work at the Mid-Lake Dam, Wedgemere, Waterfield Road to Bacon Street, Center Falls Dam, Mt Vernon Street Bridge, Shore Road, Skillings Field, Cross Street, Craddock Locks, and the Scalley Dam.
Once work at Muraco is complete, it will remove the school’s field from the floodplain, plus 40 properties upstream of the culvert. It will also reduce the 100-year flood elevation near the school by 3.5 ft.
Because the design and permitting stage could take nearly two years, Rudolph suggested the town move forward as soon as possible. Therefore, the Select Board authorized the use of $410,000 for VHB to start the design process.
Since there hasn’t been a major flood event in town in 10 years, Select Board member Jacqueline Welch wondered if it could be attributed to all the flood mitigation projects the town completed in that timeframe. Rudolph agreed that flooding in town improved after the town finished all the work.
In getting the school out of the floodplain, Select Board member Susan Verdicchio said it could only help when it comes time to eventually rebuilding or repairing the building, especially when they bring the project forward to the Mass. School Building Authority for funding assistance.
Once the board agreed to authorize the use of $410,000 for VHB, they also informally backed chair Michael Bettencourt’s plan to place an override question on the ballot. Though they didn’t make a formal vote, they could do so at their next meeting on Monday, Jan. 25.
For the possible override, Select Board member Mariano Goluboff suggested an operating override to cover the cost of the debt service where, as the town pays it down, the remainder would go into the Capital Planning Committee’s accounts.
Before then, the town might hold either a special town meeting in February or a webinar; either one to give voters a chance to fully grasp the need of the override. A town meeting may not work due to the coronavirus and also the amount of work it would give the town clerk.