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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. 

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