© The Stoneham Independent

STONEHAM, MA - Predicting a neighborhood outcry will ensue once details circulate regarding the project, two selectmen this week challenged whether town leaders ever solicited feedback from Oak Street residents about the installation of new sidewalks in the neighborhood.

During a regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday night, the Board of Selectmen directed a number of tough questions at Mass. Water Resource Authority (MWRA) officials about the resumption of excavation work along Oak Street, where a new 48-inch water main was apparently installed incorrectly (see related story on A1).

Later on in the discussion, Selectmen Shelly MacNeill and George Seibold turned to the matter of restoring the neighborhood back to its original condition after more than a year of heavy construction activity.

The two town officials also sought exact details about sidewalk installation plans for Oak Street, especially since many area abutters appear completely unaware that they might be losing pieces of their front lawns as a result of the infrastructure work.

Seibold is so concerned about an adverse neighborhood reaction to the news that he demanded a date be set immediately for a public outreach forum. Ultimately, the selectmen stopped short of scheduling that meeting, but Town Administrator Thomas Younger is expected to finalize by next week a June date for the public gathering.

"When the sidewalk situation comes into play, we should have a meeting," insisted Seibold. "These residents, they're likely losing a good chunk of their land. The residents have to know whether they're losing a part of their front yards."

"Maybe 10 people know about [that component], but the other 60 people on that street are in for a rude awakening," added the selectman. "I'd like to see a notice going out to them from the DPW."

Seibold and MacNeill's general inquires sparked a larger debate over the town's near decade-long history of negotiations with the quasi-public water provider in advance of the massive public works undertaking.

As has been the case since the MWRA broke ground on the Oak Street portion of the pipeline project in the spring of 2017, the Board of Selectmen, including past and present members, has clashed continually over how the MWRA project route was redirected from Main Street to a number of residential side-streets and which town leaders are responsible for negotiating those terms.

The back-and-forth discourse over that historical timeline was most recently started after MWRA Executive Director Fred Laskey refused to get sucked into the sidewalk planning.

According to Laskey, who explained general contractor Albanese D&S Inc. is required by contract to complete the Oak Street portion of pipeline project by September, any subsequent decisions about restoration work is to be made by town officials.

The MWRA leader, who over the past year has shouldered a mountain of criticism over the pipeline project and its adverse impacts to neighborhoods and commuters, also insisted town officials first demanded the money for the sidewalk work, which his agency always refused to foot the bill for.

Instead, the MWRA agreed to contribute $429,000 for fixing Oak Street once the excavation activity was finished. Town officials had claimed that money should be sufficient to repave the street and install new walkways.

"That's completely up to Stoneham," said Laskey, when asked when local residents can expect restoration work and sidewalk improvements on Oak Street to begin. "When we were in negotiations with the former town manager and other officials, it was the town's request to handle Oak Street."

"We told them that unless our pipe is directly underneath, we don't do sidewalk work. The town wanted a check so they could do Oak Street [on its own]," he added.

In response to those statements, Seibold and Selectman Caroline Colarusso questioned whether the MWRA's $429,000 payment is sufficient to cover the costs of both repaving Oak Street in its entirety and paying for a new sidewalk along one side of the roadway.

"That's not going to be enough," Seibold responded.

Though obviously aware of the sidewalk component - board members have mentioned the $429,000 payment on various occasions since last summer - various selectmen suggested they were unaware the mitigation money was also intended for fixing Oak Street itself.

MacNeill, referencing Colarusso's claims the entire Board of Selectmen was kept in the dark about the MWRA negotiations from the time she was first elected in 2015, in turn characterized those claims as outrageous.

"I hate to say it, but I have to say it. The idea that nobody but the town manager was involved in [the negotiation of this] mitigation is just false," said MacNeill. "I was involved in this mitigation [discussion] as chair of the School Committee. It's just disingenuous to say nobody else on the board was involved."

"I can say [in good faith] I don't remember being involved with any mitigation for the MWRA project," Colarusso shot back.

As early as 2006, Laskey approached local officials in Stoneham and Reading to discuss the pipeline work, which in Stoneham involves the installation of 48-inch line between Spot Pond and Route 28 by I-95. Since that time, various town officials - including at least two Board of Selectmen subcommittees - were directly involved in talks with Laskey over the project and an associated mitigation agreement.

It is also clear that as of 2014, former board members were aware of the MWRA's plans to reroute the pipeline project down the entire length of Oak Street, because in the fall of that year, former Selectman Ann Marie O'Neill first demanded Laskey agree to pay for new sidewalks in the neighborhood.

Notably, no present member of the selectmen was serving on the board at that time.

According to Laskey, he's stayed above the fray, when the Board of Selectmen has questioned the negotiation timeline in the past, but he won't subject himself or the MWRA to controversy over the Oak Street payment.

"We've taken some criticism and rightfully so [since this project started]. But I don't want to be involved in any discussion where people are saying, 'the MWRA is taking my front yard,'" said the MWRA executive director.

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