One Auburn property owner wants to keep her neighborhood intact.

AUBURN – Rachel Feeley has lived in the shadow of Lake Street Elementary School for 36 years.

With her house just yards from the school’s back door, she’s let students and leave their bicycles on her front lawn near her penned pet goose and use her bathroom sink to wash their hands. She opened her old, white farmhouse to care for kids during lunch and after school.

When Lake Street Elementary needed a place to cook a steamer full of hot dogs for a May fair, she offered her kitchen stove.

“It’s always been a relationship for us. A friendly relationship,” said Feeley, who went to Lake Street in third grade and sent all six of her children to school there.

But now, as the Auburn school system looks to dramatically expand the neighborhood school and take much of Feeley’s property to do it, the 78-year-old wonders if that friendly relationship is in trouble.

“I certainly don’t want the school to close,” Feeley said. “But if one neighbor hurts, it’s not the right project.”

Built in the 1920s, Lake Street school has catered to the small, tree-lined Lake Street neighborhood for more than three generations.

In the mid-1990s, Auburn school officials realized that the old brick building was no longer adequate. With 145 students from kindergarten through grade three, the school had no art room, music room, cafeteria or gymnasium. Sitting on less than two acres at the corner of Lake and Fern streets, outdoor play areas and parking places were limited.

Without renovations, Lake Street would ultimately be forced to close. The area would lose its neighborhood school.

In 2002, after years of trying to get help to overhaul the school, the state offered assistance. It agreed to help Auburn pay for an addition, with 12 classrooms, art and music space, a gymnasium and a cafeteria. It would also create separate areas for buses and parents to drop off students, and for children who walk to school to enter school grounds.

The addition would allow the school to double its student population and keep neighborhood children at Lake Street through sixth grade.

That all sounded OK to Feeley. Having spent 70 years living in the neighborhood -36 of them nextdoor to Lake Street Elementary – she knew that the school needed some work.

But some of the first plans she saw called for the destruction of her house, gully and woods. Others, she said, left the house but took most of her two-and-a-half acres for a play ground or a parking lot.

Feeley had envisioned giving up a strip of her land for a small play area or grassy field bordered by dozens of trees.

As she and several of her neighbors were approached about selling their land to Auburn for the school, rumors began to swirl. Some said the city planned to take everyone’s land by eminent domain if the owners refused to sell. Others said the school’s design was already set and included a mammoth recreational baseball field that would be built at the expense of trees, natural habitats and neighborhood homes.

“There’s been no communication,” Feeley said.

Two weeks ago, Feeley and her neighbors packed a meeting with the school system’s Building Committee. They wanted to express their concerns, including the large size of the project, the possibility of more traffic and the destruction of a forest and gully area that lines the back of Feeley’s property.

Said Feeley, “You’re going to build the school and then teach the kids about saving the environment? It doesn’t make sense.”

After the meeting, the School Committee agreed to add two Lake Street neighbors to the Building Committee. In a letter to be sent to city and school officials this week, Feeley and her neighbors will recommend that Orchard Street resident Don Corwin and Rachel Feeley’s son, Art Feeley, fill those two spots.

The letter also informs officials that Feeley is willing to sell a small portion of her land, but only if it is used for a play space, only if it remains forever undeveloped and only if it is named “Feeley Park.”

“We want to keep this friendly and on an intelligent keel,” Feeley said. “We don’t want to produce antagonism. We just want this to be the best project for the kids, for the school staff, for the neighbors, for everybody involved.”

The Building Committee is tentatively scheduled to meet on Thursday, May 1.

After years of worrying that her home and land will be bulldozed for a parking lot or a playground, Feeley said she is starting to feel optimistic that communication has finally begun between Lake Street neighbors and school officials.

But at the same time she is cautious.

“They haven’t come up with the right plan yet,” she said.

Living with Lake Street for so many decades, Feeley doesn’t want to see her neighborhood lose its school. And she doesn’t want to see the school lose its neighborhood.

Said Feeley, “This (school) has been neighborhood friendly for the last 75 years. We want it neighborhood friendly for the next 75.”

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