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Shhh! Planning Board Pushing for a Quieter Wellington

School Building Committee adding $150K to effort but state building meets town/state standards.

The Wellington School Building Committee wants to know the answer to one question: Just what is quiet enough?

The group which oversaw the year-and-a-half long construction of the $30 million school located between Orchard and School streets has been asking that question since last winter when they first sat down with a group of homeowners a few months after the Wellington opened its doors in September.

The residents – between one and two dozen – contend the school's opening has corresponded to a level of sound coming from the building's roof top HVAC system that has prevented many from obtaining a good nights sleep since it was powered up last summer.

And before the Belmont Planning Board at its Wednesday, June 27 meeting, the Building Committee brought to the table a series of possible remedies to dampen the sound coming from the school's mechanical unit.

Committee member William Lovallo said his group hoped the proposed three physical alterations – calculated at $150,000 – aimed at further reducing noise closest to the most effected homes on the building's south side would demonstrate its commitment to the neighborhood.

In return, the committee hoped the Planning Board would sign off on the school's building permit which would allow for the town to issue a permanent occupancy certificate. (Currently, the school receives a monthly temporary extension.)

Lovallo believes that would be the fair compromise since the committee is going beyond what it is required to do. Last year, the town's building inspector certified the building passed the town's noise standards bylaws.

"From a building committee and an occupancy (position), we need closure even if it is but a procedural issue to move ahead to close out the building permit," said Lovallo.

But that ending did not come to the committee's disappointment. For the neighbors and Planning Board Chairman Sami Baghdady, the question is not what is quiet enough, rather, has enough been done to resolve the noise issue?

"This is a tough one," said Baghdady after the meeting.

"We are not telling the (building committee) that they can not have their building permit. What we are saying is that a noise solution might be something that requires the entire town to take up," said Baghdady, noting that the town's noise bylaw was issued with construction in mind, not machinery or mechanical equipment.

Residents from Orchard Street and Glendale Road expressed that while progress has been made, it has not eliminated unwanted sounds, noise and vibrations into their homes, making living conditions difficult.

Working with acoustic consultant Robert Berens of Acentech who conducted readings and studies in the area, the building committee formulated five mitigation options that would placed on the south cluster of mechanical. 

Three sound steps

Three could be done quickly and within the committee's budget, said Lovallo: filling in openings along the screen wall, reduce the length of the "skirt" around the bottom of the units from 24 inches to 3 inches and add audio baffles to the machinery.

The two other plans – increasing the height of the screen up to 16 feet above the mechanicals, and replacing the three units in an attempt to purchase less noise producing systems – were deemed overly expensive (at more than $300,000) and not likely to reduce the noise significantly.

In addition, the committee said the heating and cooling systems are now under the control of the school's building department. This one step, said Lovallo, was enough to reduce a great number of the most severe complaints from residents that the machines would start running as early as 4:30 a.m.

Yet promises from the committee that they would stay involved with the neighbors on future remedies to the sound emulating from the roof was just not enough assurance for Baghdady and the board.

"We all agree that the effort of the building committee is in the right direction," said the chairman. "But at the same time, we do not believe it is complete closure," saying the board wants to wait and see if the three mitigation actions are successful, he said.

Since Berens tests were taken in the early spring, any comparative measurements are more than six months down the road, according to the committee.

Baghdady said if the mediation being done over the summer does not register the required reduction in sound, "then we as a town will need to take up the measure."

Lovallo said since the price tag for the two remaining options – upwards to $750,000 for replacing the units – are well beyond the committee's ability to raise, it will likely need Town Meeting approval as it will require the jobs to be bid out by the town.

Yet one long-time Town Meeting member told Belmont Patch that it is unlikely that an expensive solution could pass muster before Town Meeting, which would authorize the expenditure of fund.

The request for funds will likely be requested through the Capital Budget Committee which deals with larger expenditures. But its budget will be completed by the time the second round of sound measurements are performed.

Nor would Town Meeting be eager to approve a resident's petition requesting money be taken from another expenditure.

"How willing will Town Meeting members be in supporting money spent reducing the sounds from the (Wellington) when it already is compliant with town bylaws? That will be a very hard sell."

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