The Watertown Historic District Commission moved a step closer to creating a historic district for the Orchard House Wednesday night, but the owner of the property – Beacon High School – say creating a district would threaten their students' education and safety.
The Orchard House dates back to 1832 and the Historic District Commission (HDC) started the process to protect it by making the property into a historic district after school officials applied to take down the Greek Revival farmhouse.
The Walker School runs a program for teens with mental illness and severe emotional challenges at Beacon High School, and Steve Tannenbaum, vice president of the schools Board of Directors, said the program would be threatened by the requirements of a historic district being placed on the school's campus.
"It is a highly discriminated and irresponsible for the Historic District Commission to be attempting to take over the long term control of our property by establishing the site of our special needs school as a Watertown Historic District," Tannenbaum wrote in a letter to the HDC. "Besides it being an aggressive act against a class of disabled minors, the structure of your proposal is severely false."
At previous meetings, Tannenbaum said that the school sometimes needs to make changes to the property, such as adding lighting, to protect students, and the historic district rules would require the school to come to the HDC for approval. This would not allow prompt changes to school property to meet the school's changing needs, he said.
Susan Getman, president and CEO of the Walker School, said the school's attorney sent a letter to the HDC notifying about why the historic district proposal would be discriminatory against special needs students at the school, which she says are supported in both state and case law.
Tannenbaum said the school will seek to protect its rights, but also wants to work with the town.
"Our attorney tells us that Walker is on very strong legal ground," Tannenbaum said. "All options are on the table, but our desire is to reach an amicable resolution with the Town, and we are working hard toward that goal."
Tannenbaum's letter will be included in the HDC's application for a historic district, and it was read into the record at the HDC meeting. HDC Chairman Harvey Steiner thanked Tannenbaum for submitting the letter, but did not comment on it.
The commission approved the draft application, and voted to send it to the Massachusetts Historical Commission to be reviewed.
Steiner said the commission will review it and send it back with any suggestions. Then the application will be presented to the Town Council for a vote. If the Town Council approves the application, the final version will be sent back to the Massachusetts Historical Commission.