Guest columnist Toni B. Cunningham: Fort River: Greener and better site for new school

  • Fort River Elementary in Amherst. gazette file photo

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Amherst is fortunate to have a site like Fort River on which to build a new elementary school. The school building project that will combine the Fort River and Wildwood elementary schools into a single grade K-5 school for 575 students and 150 staff is reaching an exciting phase, so it’s a great time to get plugged in.

Two key upcoming decisions: site selection (Fort River or Wildwood) and heating and cooling mechanical system (ground source, also known as geothermal, or air source). It is clear to me, after digging into the details, that Fort River is the greener and better site for the new school, and ground source is the climate-forward mechanical solution.

The most obvious — and in my mind the most important — reason to select the Fort River site is that it has so much more available open space, with 31 acres of relatively flat land versus 14 hilly acres at Wildwood. Fort River has plenty of space away from cars and buses for kids to run around, for teachers to hold lessons outside when merited, and offers nearby ecosystems threaded with nature trails perfect for enhancing scientific learning.

The property boasts abundant playing fields that will be improved with well-draining surfaces, providing Amherst residents with fields for soccer, ultimate, baseball, softball, and more. These community fields are a valuable and well-used town resource that must be protected. If the Wildwood site were to be selected for the school, both the expansive fields at Fort River, and the opportunity to reuse a very large town-owned building for other community purposes would be at risk because1 the property could be sold or leased for development.

If the Wildwood site were selected for the school, minimal level green space would remain after construction, and that space would be in front of the school, next to the driveway and parking lot — inadequate for a safe play space for elementary kids, for multiple tents to be erected for simultaneous outdoor classes, and devoid of community playing fields.

During the two years of construction, it’s unclear where children at Wildwood would play as a new building must be built on the site of the main playground and field.

Fort River is also the greener choice. Geothermal wells are more easily accommodated on the site, whereas drilling the necessary wells at Wildwood would require either complicated construction efforts impacting the operation of the existing school, or a 50-year agreement with the regional school district to use the neighboring middle school athletic field.

A ground source system is the greener solution, requiring significantly less energy to run than air source, and enabling the building to reach the target energy use intensity of 25. This means fewer solar panels required to generate that power, and less electricity drawn from the grid when energy needs exceed production.

Both UMass Amherst and Smith College recently announced groundbreaking sustainability commitments that rely heavily on geothermal systems in order to move off fossil fuels and meet carbon mitigation goals. Following their lead, the town should insist on ground source wells for this first municipal net-zero energy building project, acknowledging that it carries a higher initial cost (compared to air source) but lower maintenance and operational costs over the 50-year lifespan of the building.

Previously touted claims that the Fort River site is “wet” has led some residents to deem the site not buildable. The project engineers, however, have confirmed the conditions at the site (high groundwater and poorly draining soils) are present at Wildwood too, are very common throughout the Connecticut River Valley, and are solvable with readily available measures. At Wildwood, to fit the proposed three-story building on the dense property, the tree-covered hill to the east would need to be excavated at least partially, a retaining wall constructed, and extra drainage systems installed.

For these reasons and others, I contend that Fort River is the superior site for the new school.

Soon, the architects will develop the first detailed designs for what I hope will be a project that unites the town as we celebrate Amherst’s first municipal net-zero energy building. It should be a beautiful second home for future generations of Amherst children while at the same time helping the town reach its critical climate goals.

Toni B. Cunningham of Amherst is the parent of two children at Wildwood Elementary School.