The School Building Committee and some neighbors suing Andover to challenge plans for a new Bancroft Elementary School fought for eight months over how many soccer fields should be created and how stormwater runoff should be controlled.
In the end, it was Selectman Paul Salafia's direct communication with residents Dana Willis and Stanley Mann, both of South Main Street, that helped broker a deal, minutes of the town's closed-door meetings show.
While the building committee had voted for Salafia to approach the neighbors with a plan for two soccer fields instead of the one field the neighbors wanted, Salafia refused to do so. After Salafia's refusal, the School Building Committee agreed to accept play space allowing one soccer field and settle the lawsuit.
The minutes released cover 24 closed-door School Building Committee meetings from Aug. 31, 2011 to May 29, 2012.
The minutes show that while an attorney for South Main Street residents Dana Willis and Stanley Mann regularly met with Andover Town Counsel Tom Urbelis, others, such as committee members, neighbors suing the town, and Salafia hammered out the details of what ultimately became a revised play area design on which both sides reluctantly settled.
"I don't think the School Building Committee was particularly happy about it, and I don't think the appellants were happy about it," said Salafia. "But that's how these things are. Nobody is happy to go to a settlement, and it's probably the right settlement, but nobody is happy."
After discussions between the legal counsels dragged on for months, Salafia was approached by a friend of Willis, he said, who asked him to talk to Willis.
"He said, 'I think you should call him. He's really struggling,'" said Salafia. "'He'd really like to settle this, but he doesn't know how, and I think you should help him.'"
At that point, Salafia started meeting with and talking to Willis, and on occasion Mann, about the project. After Feb. 15, Salafia was a frequent guest at the School Building Committee meetings, explaining to the committee what Willis and Mann were concerned with and what steps were necessary to reach a settlement.
The talks reached a boiling point on March 28, when the committee instructed Salafia to take a counter offer to a proposal designed by Willis and Mann. Salafia left the meeting with his assignment but refused to make the offer, something he reported two days later at another closed door session.
"I just felt uncomfortable bringing forward some of the requests from the School Building Committee, and I felt as though the whole idea of brokering a deal is you have to act as a middleman for everybody, and you have to see everybody's side," said Salafia. "In order to get a deal done, everybody has to give a little."
Urbelis said he could make the offer himself. By the end of the meeting, though, the building committee "sort of got our arms around [this] option, and felt it could be a workable solution," said SBC Chairman Tom Deso.
Salafia "was a channel of communication that was not there between the abutters directly and the building committee," said Deso.
"Paul worked very hard to convey to the abutters that a lot of what they were getting in this proposed settlement was about as much as they were going to get, and this was better than letting this go and potentially losing the suit," said Deso. "The choice was clear. We could sit and wait for however long it took the appeals to run their course, or we could try to move the process along."
The decision saved the town a minimum of $400,000 in delayed construction costs by the end of the project, in lieu of $65,000 in extra site work and plantings, according to Salafia.
"I'll swap a $65,000 settlement for that any day of the week," said Salafia.
Generally, lawyers tell their clients to "leave it up to us to do the work, and let us to the negotiating," said Peter Flynn, who represented Willis and Mann. "They seemed to make headway, and the selectman was sensibly listening to it and it worked out."
"We are in the court, we're all set to go and the process is going to keep going," recalled Flynn. "And all of the sudden, the clients are making headway when the lawyers couldn't. That's not a slight on the lawyers for the town or on us. It seemed the clients were doing pretty good, and we were happy to see them doing that."
Generally, without lawyers, clients can't get into the Superior Court or Appeals Court, Flynn said. But this was different, and it represented a rare event that Flynn said he hasn't seen much in his years as legal counsel.
"It's a unique situation where, I believe, the clients did more to achieve this result than the lawyers did," said Flynn. "I give the nod to the clients on this one."
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EXECUTIVE HISTORY: TALKS EVOLVE TO DEAL
The following is a summary of the minutes. All quotes come from the minutes directly, which summarize what was said by those in attendance.
AUG. 31, 2011: The meeting begins at 7:35 a.m. Immediately, the committee votes to enter Executive Session. Building architects and members of the public are told to leave the room, and the doors are closed.
Tom Urbelis, town counsel, explains that five abutters to the project appealed the Conservation Commission's Order of Conditions allowing for an extension of West Knoll Road. No building permits can be issued, and the legal process could take two years or more, Urbelis says.
A decision is made to keep design of the project moving forward but halt all site work and mobilization. A joint executive meeting is planned between the building committee, School Committee and selectmen to discuss the appeals. A press release is planned.
SEPT. 8, 2011: The building committee learns that a lawsuit in Superior Court is likely.
SEPT. 14, 2011: School Building Committee Chairman Mark Johnson says the appellants "would not articulate what they wanted except to redesign the fields." Urbelis says the town has a strong case in the appeals and that it should work to "educate [the Department of Environmental Protection] on the science aspect of the case." Urbelis also says "a meeting with the abutters would not be constructive, contact should be limited," and that he would send a letter to the abutters "asking them what they want."
SEPT. 28, 2011: Urbelis reaches out to Peter Flynn, an attorney representing Willis and Mann, to try to meet. Flynn responds, saying "the earliest they could potentially meet would be at the end of October."
OCT. 26, 2011: The DEP sides with the town and issues its own Superceding Order of Conditions, which is appealed by Willis, Urbelis says.
NOV. 30, 2011: A letter from Willis and Mann serves as "a starting point for discussion," Urbelis says, though he cautions the building committee to "not get too focused on the items in the letter." Meanwhile, "the committee might want to discuss what they are willing to do to settle the case."
DEC. 14, 2011: More than three months after the appeals were first filed, the School Building Committee unanimously approves entering into discussions with Willis, Michael Noakes and Tom Garesché©, two other appellants to the project.
JAN. 4, 2012: The meeting with Willis, Mann, Garesché© and Attorney Jason Scopa, also representing Willis and Mann, focuses "primarily on the fields and wooded area south of the school," Urbelis says.
JAN. 11, 2012: Three play area options are discussed. Urbelis tells the building committee "there will probably be future appeals," and "making an offer now could save time later." The project could go into calendar year 2013 before the appeals run their course, he says.
The three options are presented to Willis and Mann as offers, and a meeting on Jan. 18 is requested.
JAN. 25, 2012: School Building Chairman Tom Deso explains Scopa responded to the building committee, saying "the abutters rejected the committee's offer to meet with the SBC on Jan 18, 2012, they rejected the offer to reduce the size of the fields, and that Attorney Scopa would provide a written response."
FEB. 15, 2012: Selectman Paul Salafia is brought into the meeting, where he says he was approached by a friend of Willis who asked that he talk to him. Salafia describes meeting with Willis. "He had walked the site with Dana and listened to his concerns."
"[Salafia] noted that some of the items Dana was requesting were unrealistic," the minutes say. Willis is said to have told Salafia his issues with plans for a temporary road to allow rephasing of the project, as well as the project's height and proximity to his property. Willis tells Salafia of his plans to "file a restraining order if work was started on a temporary road," and he asks that the building be turned, moved 100 feet and have buffering added.
The building committee asks Salafia "to make it clear to Dana that if the SBC is forced to build the temporary road then there will be no further negotiation or changes to the original design. He should stress to Mr. Willis that he will lose a lot of buffer if we have to go this route."
FEB. 27, 2012: Field Option "C" is chosen, giving the project a play area large enough to accommodate two soccer fields instead of the three currently present on the site. Other issues, including abutting fences falling on or near town property, are discussed.
FEB. 29, 2012: Salafia reports that Willis agrees "with all of their responses."
MARCH 2, 2012: A berm proposal, details about a nearby fence and an overall plan is discussed with the intention of presenting the plan to Willis and Mann. Deso says he wants a response from Willis by the following Wednesday's meeting. Salafia responds by saying "Willis will need to get his architect and review it with him," and that "a decision for Wed. night might be too soon."
MARCH 21, 2012: After a few more meetings, discussion returns to Field Option C. The building committee notes "that in this plan Bancroft will have the largest population school with the smallest play area, which is not acceptable."
MARCH 28, 2012: The building committee is told that if a revised version of Field Option C, created by architect Chris Huntress on behalf of Willis and Mann, is approved, "Willis & Mann would settle immediately." The revised plan involves taking a portion of Field Option C's play area and spacing trees on it so it can't be used as a soccer field. Only one soccer field could be built on the site with this plan.
The building committee discusses a counter-offer that would, among other things, return to a play area that would be fully cleared of trees and large enough to support two fields. Salafia tells the committee that "Mr. Willis & Mann were ready to settle, and that counter offering with two fields may not work."
The building committee votes, unanimously supporting its counter offer, and tells Salafia to bring the two-field Option C to Willis and Mann for their consideration.
MARCH 30, 2012: Salafia returns, saying he "did not approach Mr. Willis and Mr. Mann with the additional field Option, as was directed at the last meeting."
Salafia says the offer "wasn't the correct message from the Town." A member of the committee reminds the group that Option C is not what the abutters came back with.
"This is the opportunity to settle," Salafia says, emphasizing that the committee accept the modified field plan.
APRIL 10, 2012: The School Building Committee agrees to the plan and signs the settlement.