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Will Concord be Parking Its School Buses in Acton?

It’s possible.

Is a 6.5-acre parcel of land in Acton going to be the new home of Concord's school bus depot?
Is a 6.5-acre parcel of land in Acton going to be the new home of Concord's school bus depot?

By more than a two-thirds majority last week, Concord’s Town Meeting supported a land acquisition intended to keep public school transportation in-district by establishing a bus depot in Acton.

The vote authorized Concord’s Board of Selectmen to purchase about 6.5-acres of land at 55 and 55R Knox Trail in Acton, upon which the Concord school committees propose to park school buses and other vehicles to support in-district school transportation for the Concord Public Schools and Concord-Carlisle Regional High School

As of Friday afternoon, however, neither the purchase nor the plans for the land had been finalized. Holding up the deal are complications around the seller, KMLB Realty Trust, whose partners have gone bankrupt. 

Though the purchase and sale agreement was unsigned when Town Meeting approved the land acquisition, officials remain confident a deal will get done, and soon. But if it doesn’t happen quickly, then things could eventually get complicated. 

According to a memorandum of understanding between the Concord’s school committees and Board of Selectmen, if issues around the Knox Trail property are not finalized by April 1, 2014, then the school committees will move to outsource the bus operation. And if the schools outsource transportation, then the Board of Selectmen would likely reconsider the purchase of the property, according to Town Manager Chris Whelan.

Considered the last best hope for keeping school transportation in-house, the Dec. 4 vote to authorize the Knox Trail was critical to that effort. “If this fails tonight, we will be outsourcing,” School Committee member Jennifer Munn said at the time.

Though they support keeping transportation in-house, Concord’s school committees have been pursuing a “dual track process” for resolving the issue of student transportation. One track is the Knox Trail property; the other is outsourcing.

At their joint meeting this Tuesday, Dec. 10, the school committees plan to vote to authorize their consultants to prepare bids for outside transportation services and the disposition of the bus fleet. Putting out the bids would not obligate the district to award a contract, but it keeps the door open in case the Knox Trail land deal doesn’t happen.

Assuming a deal is reached, the plan would be for Concord’s public schools to park their fleet of buses and maybe eventually perform maintenance and install fuel pumps on a portion of the property, while the rest of the land would be used for municipal purposes.

Vehicle parking/storage is allowed as a principle use on the property with site-plan approval under Acton’s zoning, and an office would be permitted as an accessory use. But Concord would have to pursue an educational exemption for fueling and vehicle repair. Whatever is done will require site plan approval – from Acton’s Board of Selectmen for park the buses and from the Zoning Board of Appeals for fueling and repairs, according to Whelan.

Meanwhile, residents and officials from Acton have raised concerns about Concord’s plans for the property and their potential impact on the nearby Assabet wells, which are part of the town’s public water supply.

At Town Meeting last week, Acton Town Manager Steven Ledoux read a letter from the Board of Selectmen detailing the board’s concerns about a transportation depot’s potential adverse impact on the wells and commuter traffic. He also noted the board’s sense of “incredulity” that Concord could not find a location within its borders for a bus depot.

Acton Water District Commissioner Len Phillips also spoke at the special Town Meeting, explaining the two Assabet wells closest to Knox Trail are the town’s most productive. The aquifers cannot be moved, Phillips said, but many alternatives less concerning to Acton exist for Concord and its buses.

Concord, however, maintains that its environmental consultant has determined using the site, which has a prior history of contamination, for bus storage would pose a “negligible” risk to Acton’s water supply.

School transportation, and the possibility of outsourcing, has been an issue in Concord for going on two years now as the Concord-Carlisle High School building project as forced the Transportation Department out of its former home on the high school grounds. 

Earlier this year, annual Town Meeting voted against a plan to put a bus depot on the former landfill site by Walden Woods. Currently, the schools rent a maintenance facility in Billerica and a parking lot in Acton for the fleet. 

Valerie Tratnyek December 09, 2013 at 11:25 AM
Mr. Ball, thank you, but I would add a couple of points: First, even though the Town voted against putting our bus depot at Walden Pond in the spring, we DID vote to put our bus depot back on the CCHS campus (by citizen petition). Just because this effort wasn't supported by the school committee, doesn't mean it isn't the will of The People, and it should certainly be mentioned in your article. As you may have noticed at the special town meeting, the sentiment was clearly that the school committee "is not listening" and that people no longer trust them. For instance, an outright lie by school leadership, that the MSBA funding would be in jeopardy if we put buses back at CCHS, was exposed by none other than our state rep, Corey Atkins. Second, although the school committee says currently that they "support keeping transportation in-house", they actually voted to outsource after their failed attempt to build a depot at Walden Pond. To the best of my knowledge, they have not changed that vote. They also stopped buying new buses 5 years ago (and transferred the money elsewhere), so why would we believe they have any intention at all in keeping buses "in house"? These are all reasons why a citizen felt the need to amend the article to state clearly that the Knox Trail property can not be used by an outside contractor (and the Town voted yes WITH the amendment) Time to do some real "investigative" reporting! VAL
LM December 10, 2013 at 08:58 AM
There is a difference between 'in-house' and 'in-district' that is confusing folks too. Outsourced buses might still be in-district if parked at Knox Trail, which amendments to the purchase Article hoped to prevent. Concord wants 'in-house' transportation, and its school committee needs to make that happen. There is irony in that Concord is actively consulting with neighboring Acton officials on its depot at Knox Trail, but Carlisle didn't apparently give a hoot about neigbor/partner Concord in leading the charge to keep the depot off the 96 acre +/- regional school property, which affected the K-8 CPS program and impacts local recreation services.

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