Select Board and School Committee Dispute Coffin School Property
“If we are changing our bylaws at the town level to allow up to 870 new units, how in that same breadth do we diminish our infrastructure to a point where we would not be able to educate all of those people?”
– Sarah Fox, School Committee Chair, October 5, 2023
“Basically, the Coffin site is not the School Committee’s. It’s not the Select Board’s. It belongs to the taxpayers and residents of the town…as such, the Select Board is the senior board that is entrusted to determine the disposition of taxpayer assets and property.”
– Moses Grader, October 11, 2023 Select Board meeting
The Coffin School property, located at 1 Turner Road in Marblehead, sits on approximately three acres of land. The school was originally built in 1948, with an annex added in 1962, and it was most recently used as an elementary school serving students in second and third grade. The school was closed in October 2021 when its operations were shifted to the new Brown School.
Erin Noonan, the Select Board Chair and a member of both the Fair Housing Committee and the Housing Production Plan Implementation Committee (HPPIC), emphasized the importance of the Coffin property in introducing a discussion that took place at the October 11th Select Board meeting. “The Coffin School has been identified as one of the potential town assets to leverage in our housing production plan,” she said, noting that the goal is to offer “affordable housing and increase the diversity of housing choices in town beyond just single family homes.”
The School Committee, during a meeting on October 5th, voted 3-to-2 to retain the Coffin property for potential future school use. Much of the discussion centered around a new Massachusetts law that would require Marblehead and 176 other communities across the Commonwealth to identify one or more districts in which to change zoning bylaws to automatically allow multi-family housing, potentially adding additional children who would need to be educated in local public schools.
What is the Marblehead Housing Production Plan?
As laid out in the HPP document, Marblehead comprises a little over four square miles, with a current population of approximately 20,000 residents. While acknowledging that development opportunities in Marblehead are limited due to “a lack of land availability” and “a small overall area of land,” the document also cites zoning restrictions that favor single-family homes. Noting that the median home price in Marblehead has increased substantially in recent years, the document calls attention to the burden this places on Marbleheaders who are aging and on young families who might want to move into the community.
The document goes on to identify 12 properties that could be considered for potential development, including the Coffin property.
What is the MBTA Multi-Family Zoning Law?
As previously reported by Marblehead Beacon, Massachusetts recently passed a law regarding multi-family housing requirements, commonly referred to as the “Multi-Family Zoning Requirement for MBTA Communities.” According to this law, Marblehead’s mandate includes changing the town zoning bylaws covering a minimum area of 27 acres and 897 units. Bohler Engineering, in a memorandum outlining Marblehead’s options for compliance with state guidelines, recommended a region in the northern part of town comprising 49 acres and allowing for the addition of 940 units to Marblehead’s housing stock. The bylaw changes would need to be approved at Town Meeting, and it is unclear at this time what would result if Marblehead voters oppose the measure.
How did the Select Board/School Committee interchange begin?
The back-and-forth between the Select Board and the School Committee appears to have been initiated by a letter Noonan sent to the School Committee that was later published in the Marblehead Current. While the published version of the letter implies that Noonan was writing as the Select Board Chair and representing the official position of that Board, Fox noted that she was “unclear on if that request is coming from the full committee or if it was written as an individual.” Marblehead Beacon reached out to Noonan about the letter, and she clarified that she "signed it from my own letterhead and just my name. The Current added select board chair."
In the letter, Noonan indicated her understanding that the School Committee had made a commitment to return the Coffin property to the town for alternative uses. She noted that, “[i]f this School Committee is to renege on the promise to voters about our school building needs, it will imperil the goodwill and trust of taxpayers and the credibility of town government.” Noonan indicated that there was a “commitment and representations made by school officials and volunteers on behalf of the School Department” as a part of the process of obtaining funding for the recently completed Brown elementary school.
School Committee member Alison Taylor questioned whether or when the School Committee had made this “promise” regarding the disposition of Coffin. “What promise did we make to hand it over?” she asked, “I don’t know what the disconnect is there.” She went on to note that she was on the facilities subcommittee last year, and her recollection was that the committee voted unanimously against giving Coffin to the Select Board for alternative uses.
Fox concurred, noting that the entire facilities subcommittee, including former Superintendent John Buckey who was serving on the committee at that time, “voted not to turn Coffin over.” Noonan, by contrast, noted in her letter that “Buckey, in his role as a member of the HPPIC, was aware that the most efficient process would be for the School Committee to formally vote on the matter early this fall so that the town planner could put out requests for proposals from developers for potential future use of the site. He reported to the HPPIC that the School Committee would take the matter up either at its summer retreat or shortly thereafter.”
Why did the School Committee vote to retain Coffin?
The School Committee vote on October 5th to retain the Coffin site for future potential school use was three-to-two, with Fox, Alison Taylor, and Jenn Schaeffner voting in favor and Meagan Taylor and Brian Ota opposed.
Schaeffner, in supporting the retention of Coffin, noted that “we don’t know what the future needs are of the school district. We don’t have a crystal ball.” She went on to state that, though we’ve seen declining enrollments, this doesn’t mean that we won’t have increases going forward. “It would be irresponsible for the Committee to consider giving up the property,” given that, with the potential implementation of the MBTA district overlay zoning, “we could have hundreds of units potentially coming on board, and that’s potentially more students.”
Fox concurred, noting her view that it is “grossly irresponsible to talk about taking property off line when we don’t know the outcome of the vote at Town Meeting” regarding the potential of adding “870 or 900 new units.” Referring to anticipated future school enrollment numbers from the Massachusetts School Building Authority, Fox explained that “they used the lack of ability to grow with our current zoning bylaws as a factor to make our projections. If we are now changing that by a delta of 900, that changes our projections.”
Meagan Taylor pointed out that the Coffin building is “a cost and a major liability for us.” Calling for more productive and collaborative conversations with the town, she noted that the property is “just sitting there, and we’re waiting for something bad to happen.” She called the effort to keep the school property “irresponsible” and “premature.” “We are trying to make a decision with no information,” she said.
Schaeffner pushed back, noting that we could in fact need the property for a school to serve the northern part of town and that, given the need to wait for a vote at Town Meeting on the zoning bylaw changes, it is impossible to gather further information prior to that time. Alison Taylor added her perspective that, “with or without the housing plan, with or without 900 more units, with or without more people, I still think there are other viable uses for that land.”
Should the Coffin building be demolished?
A lot of the discussion surrounding the Coffin property involves the building itself and whether or not it should be demolished. In her letter, Noonan included a number of arguments in opposition, noting that “use of taxpayer money to demolish the building is financially irresponsible” and that demolishing the building “would actually depreciate the value to potential developers.” Alison Taylor disagreed, noting that “I don’t believe the land is worth more with the deteriorating building on it.”
Fox noted that Buckey had requested a quote on the demolition of the building about six months ago and acknowledged that there is concern about funding options. “This is not to say we are demolishing anything,” she emphasized, just that it would be worthwhile for the facilities subcommittee to have this conversation. Schaeffner suggested bringing in subject-matter experts to review options.
What are the next steps?
At the October 11th Select Board meeting, member Moses Grader asserted his belief that the School Committee’s decision to keep the Coffin property was misguided, and that legal steps could potentially be taken. Grader explained that, “if you don’t use something for two years and you haven’t reestablished its use, then you are in a non-conforming use situation.” Noting that he still needed to obtain confirmation, he suggested that this was “a very significant basic argument that the schools just don’t have jurisdiction over this anymore.”
Select Board member Bret Murray agreed. “I hate to do that,” he said, “but I would agree that we have to go to legal counsel to get their advice on what our options are.”
Reached by phone after the Select Board meeting, Fox told Marblehead Beacon that she disagreed with the argument that the Select Board could override the vote of another autonomous board in town. Claiming that the Coffin site is still “under the care and custody of the schools,” Fox reiterated her belief that it would be “exceptionally short sighted” to give away a property that might be needed to educate future Marblehead students.
Editor’s note: School Committee member Jenn Schaeffner is a Marblehead Beacon founder and editor. She is recusing herself from Marblehead Beacon’s coverage of the School Committee and anything pertaining to Marblehead Public Schools. Schaeffner also serves as a member of Marblehead’s Housing Authority. Her husband, Bob Schaeffner, is the Chair of the Planning Board.