Winchester culvert

This is how skillings field in Winchester looked 7 years ago, with three culverts sending water underneath the field. In the years since, the town added a fourth culvert to help with flood mitigation. That's just one of the many projects the town undertook. As it stands, Winchester has one project left, two culverts underneath the railroad tracks behind the Muraco School on Bates road.

13 projects down, one to go.

In Winchester, flooding has been an issue for decades. Over the past 25 years, the town saw seven major flood events, with the last one occurring on March 31, 2010.

There’s a reason the original name of the town was Waterfield. One look at Winchester from high above and it doesn’t take a keen eye to see rivers and ponds running all over town. But just changing the name of the town to Winchester didn’t solve the water problems. The town needed to do some real work.

“Flood mitigation has been a priority for 20 years,” former chair of the Capital Planning Committee Helen Philliou told the Select Board back in October of 2018.

At the time, her committee wanted the Select Board to commit to funding the penultimate flood mitigation project, the Swanton Street bridge culvert, at a cost of nearly $3M. They did through a vote of town meeting later that November.

Now, with the Swanton Street bridge culvert project set to begin this spring (and the bridge will close from June 15 - Sept. 15) through MAS Building and Bridge Inc. who won the bid, the town can concentrate on the last project: installing two additional seven-foot culverts by the railroad tracks at the Muraco School on Bates Road.

Once the town completes these two projects, all residents will reap the benefits (and many still in the floodplain around the Swanton Street bridge culvert and Muraco School will be removed, saving them money on their home insurance and increasing their property value).

There remains one small issue: getting the town to support an override to pay for the final culvert work. While the town supported every other flood mitigation effort, this last override (for flood mitigation, anyway) actually asks residents to pay for both the additional culverts and repairs to the Muraco School building including roof repairs and replacing three boilers that stopped functioning properly.

While there won’t be a specific number attached to the ballot question when it goes before voters on March 30 (almost 11 years to the day of the last major flooding event), the Select Board announced a price tag of $12.7M.

The saving grace, as noted by member Mariano Goluboff, concerns the type of override (debt-exclusion) and the amount of time the town has to pay it back (25 years). Unlike the last override passed in FY20 to add money to the town’s operating budget, a debt-exclusion override can be paid down over time.

The town supported similar overrides for the newish Vinson-Owen School (on the west side of town) and renovations to the high school.

While most of the money will go towards the culvert project, some will assist the town in keeping the Muraco School building online until the town receives support from the Massachusetts School Building Authority on a rebuild (which could take some time). The MSBA recently agreed to help fund a rebuild/renovation of the Lynch Elementary School (which the town will ask residents to support through another override in a couple of years).

It might not be easy, as Select Board member Amy Shapiro hesitated in supporting the Muraco School override (though she did vote with the rest of her board on placing the question on the March 30 ballot). Her concerns included: asking voters to support another override and the unfortunate timing (in the middle of a global pandemic).

“I understand both need to get done now,” she noted, “but on its face its very uncomfortable.”

She asked the board to de-couple the two projects and push the culvert project back until after COVID-19 ends.

Her fellow board members reminded her how expensive a project like this gets every time the town puts it off ($1M or so each year).

“Flood mitigation isn’t complete until all the projects are done,” chair Michael Bettencourt acknowledged. “This pushes off the Muraco rebuild if we wait.”

Shapiro did suggest hearing from residents first, and the town plans to hold a public information session Thursday at 6:30 p.m. (check for a livestream). Regardless of what residents say, the question will make it onto the spring election ballot.

For some, this is a long time coming. As Goluboff stressed, some already benefitted from previous projects (widening the Aberjona River, adding a fourth culvert underneath Skillings Field, adding a fourth culvert underneath the Mt. Vernon St. Bridge, mitigation at the Scalley Dam in Woburn, work at the Mid-Lake Dam in Arlington/Medford, a culvert addition on Shore Road, plus other, smaller projects).

“We have two projects left,” he pointed out, “ Swanton Street and Muraco. All the other projects are done and benefitted those downstream. Those (living) upstream have yet to benefit, but they’ve supported all the others. We have to approve this project now to receive the full benefits. I definitely favor putting this on the ballot.”

Select Board Vice Chair Susan Verdicchio agreed, saying while she understood Shapiro’s concerns, “people have been waiting 20 years.”

She added how the “risk is really out there,” pointing out how costs will continue to rise the longer the town waits. She suggested putting the question before the voters.

“This will be up to the residents,” Bettencourt admitted, “but there’s strong signals from the community this is a priority.”

Bettencourt went on to state that although the number seems large, the town “knew we had two aging schools (Lynch and Muraco) and the state can only help with one at a time.” He actually pushed for more repairs at Muraco, but said the ones the board suggested were the most necessary.

Eventually, Shapiro expressed comfort in putting this question before the voters, suggesting the board would get their support by breaking everything down. It worked for all the other projects the town backed over the past two decades.

The Muraco project, according to engineer Jake San Antonio of VHB (Vanasse Hangen Brustlin), will benefit Lowell Avenue businesses, Brookside Avenue, Forest Street, Nathaniel Road, Washington Street, and Sunset Road (which abuts the proposed development at the former Atlantic Gelatin site in Woburn).

“It’s an exciting time,” San Antonio said at a previous Select Board meeting. “We’re nearing the end of a monumental program.”

Once all these projects are complete, residents may finally be able to drop the water in Waterfield.

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