BOONE — Public schools would be exempted from some Valle Crucis Historic District Ordinance requirements under a proposed change discussed at the Sept. 17 Watauga County Board of Commissioners meeting.

After a closed session, the board directed county staff to submit an application to the Planning and Inspections Department to amend the Valle Crucis Historic District ordinance. The commissioners scheduled an Oct. 15 public hearing to consider proposed amendments to the ordinance.

This discussion comes amid Watauga County Schools plans to construct a new Valle Crucis School. The school system has been under contract since March for property that is approximately one-quarter mile from the existing school for the construction of a new building. The county stated it and the Watauga County Board of Education have been considering two options: rebuilding on the current site or building a new school on a different site.

”Either option would result in a school structure within the Historic District and subject to the restrictions of the ordinance,” according to the county’s application.

The application states that the amendments would be a “straightforward way to address what the county deems to have been an oversight of having failed to address public schools within the ordinance.” The application states that the Valle Crucis Historic District Ordinance was enacted in 1990, and since then the ordinance has not addressed public schools.

The footprint of the current school is considered a non-conforming use under the ordinance. However, because of its existence at the time the ordinance was enacted, the nonconformity has been permitted, according to the application.

The proposed amendments would be to sections 2.3, 2.4 and 2.5. Section 2.3 addresses bonafide farms, and would also address public schools if approved.

This section of the ordinance currently reads: “This ordinance shall not be applicable to bonafide farms, but any use of farm property for non-farm purposes is subject to the regulation. Bona fide farm purposes include production of corps, fruits, vegetables, ornamental and flowering plants, dairy, poultry, and all other forms of agricultural products having a domestic or foreign market.”

The amendments would also state that sections 2.4 and 2.5 “shall not be applicable to public schools.” Section 2.4 addresses area height and placement standards with requirements listed such as minimum lot size, minimum lot width, minimum required yards and maximum building height. Section 2.5 discusses performance standards such as buffer zones, parking, screening of parking, density, signage, lighting, placement of buildings and facades.

The application explains that the restrictions of the ordinance creates requirements and features that are not consistent with area, height, placement and performance standards for schools. The example listed in the application states that the ordinance’s building height restriction of 30 feet would prevent the school from having a suitable gymnasium — as the standard gymnasium is 40 plus feet.

Descriptions of each of these items can be found in the Valle Crucis Historic District Ordinance attached to this article online at www.wataugademocrat.com.

The commissioners also heard from Crystal Kelly, Pritzker Fellow and director of strategic initiatives at the Watauga County Children’s Council. Kelly updated the board on the work of the Pritzker Children’s Initiative that she has been participating with since last year.

Last October, Kelly urged the county to invest more in early childhood education. At the Sept. 17 meeting, she said she wanted to thank the county for the investments it has made in the field so far. She added that the county is getting noticed across the country for its participation in the initiative and prioritizing public dollars for upstream approaches to prevent adversity for children.

According to Kelly, there are around 1,100 children in the county under the age of 3 — almost half are living at or below the federal poverty level. Of the 1,110, about 25 percent are in child care. Kelly said the community is considered a “child care desert” due to limited resources.

To address this, Kelly said the area is trying to strengthen the child care system it already has. Before addressing the scarcity of child care spots, the Children’s Council wants to address the quality of child care by creating equity. To do this, Kelly said they are increasing teacher education, compensation and addressing how child care workers interact with children.

Earlier this year the Children’s Council launched a local accreditation program that offers professional development, technical assistance, financial incentives and high quality trainings to child care centers.

Since the start of the program, the council has seen an increase in the number of lead teachers making at least $12 an hour increase from 53 percent to 100 percent. It stated there has also been an increase in the number of lead teachers with at least an associate of arts degree or working toward one from 79 percent to 100 percent. Additionally, 60 percent of children in licensed early learning programs benefited from quality improvement services (389 children out of 663), and 42 teachers benefitted from quality improvement services.

For those not in child care, Kelly said the Children’s Council wants to build stronger support for families. It has done so by partnering with the Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, Blue Ridge Pediatrics and AppHealthCare for a Family Connects program that links a nurse with families for home visits the first three months of a baby’s life and help get them connected to additional resources. These visits are universal, meaning they are offered regardless of background or socioeconomic status.

“Our current system is set up that you don’t get help unless you have money or you meet a risk factor and you’ve fallen through the cracks,” Kelly said.

Kelly said that funding from the county attracts additional funding from both public and private entities. Adding to this, Kelly requested that the commissioners consider creating an Early Childhood Education and Development Fund. This fund could be the next step of a resolution that the commissioners approved last year, as Kelly said the resolution agreed to promote investments.

Chairman John Welch thanked Kelly and the Children’s Council for the work done so far for this initiative and for “lighting a fire under our chairs to move us along.”

For more information about the Children’s Council, visit www.thechildrenscouncil.org.

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