VALLE CRUCIS — Phrases such as finding a “win-win solution” and coming “together as a community” to stop divisiveness were stated by several people during a public meeting on the Valle Crucis School on Oct. 22; however, not everyone agreed on the best way to go about doing so.
“Regardless of how we’re painted, we all feel the same way; we want a new school in the Valle … and I think this divisiveness needs to end right now,” said J.D. Dooley. “Everybody needs to ask themselves one question — is this the best place for a school in Valle Crucis?”
The Watauga County Board of Education hosted a second public meeting about a proposed new Valle Crucis School to be placed on a 14.4-acre tract of land — known as the Hodges property — that is a quarter of a mile from the current school. The topic of placing a new school on the property has been debated over the course of several months while the school board has been under contract for the land.
Two apparent sides of the debate have emerged — those who approve of the school being placed on the Hodges property and those who oppose. Many have commented during both public meetings (Sept. 3 and Oct. 22) with the school board as well as during a public comment period on Oct. 23 with the Watauga County Board of Commissioners on the animosity among community members about the topic.
Roughly 185 guests were in attendance at the meeting, according to Watauga County Schools. Of the 22 speakers, eight made comments against the placement of the new school and 12 were in favor; some comments made were unclear on which side the speaker stood.
According to Chris Campbell, the board’s attorney, the Hodges site was identified as a possible site by board member Steve Combs in December 2018. The appraisal for the site — totaling $1,105,000 — was completed by Micheal Sweeting of Sweeting Appraisal Service.
Campbell started the meeting by explaining a few legal matters concerning the topic. He said the law does not require the school board to host a public hearing prior to a board contracting for the purchase of a piece of property. Additionally, N.C.G.S. 115C-517 confers duties to the school board to determine if a site is “suitable” for a school.
While under contract for the property, the school board has been conducting a due diligence period to test the viability of the site for a school. Chad Roberson, an architect with Clark Nexsen, explained the 12 steps taken during the due diligence period thus far. These tasks include a septic/soil scientist evaluation, land surveys, an environmental assessment, an archaeological assessment, wetland evaluation, conceptual layout plans and well drilling.
Future steps for the property include final permitting for septic testing, environmental permitting, zoning completion and creating a building design. During the comment portion of the meeting, a question was raised as to why a rendering of the project had not been presented yet.
Roberson replied that the team is still early in the process and “thousands of other items” would have to take place before architects create a schematic design. If the property is purchased, Roberson said architects would enter into a programming conversation with the school board to discuss all of the different spaces that would be required in the facility prior to creating a rendering.
He did assure those in attendance that the design of the building would address the Valle Crucis Historic District design guidelines.
Concept layouts were shown of what one- and two-story options for a school with a parking lot and student drop-off lanes could look like on the property. He added that the full 14.4 acres of the site is needed to accommodate a building, parking, well, septic and outdoor play space. The building would be located “well above the mandated base flood elevation,” Roberson said.
The floodway portion of the property would be an “excellent location” for recreational space, Roberson said, although the board faces the challenge of not being able to place anything permanent in the area. The decision could be made, though, to place removable soccer goals or a pavilion in that space.
Superintendent Scott Elliott said plans also included separate playgrounds for the pre-kindergarten students and the older students.
“Additionally, direct access to the river will allow for endless outdoor education opportunities,” Elliott said. “We also hope to work with community partners to improve the riparian buffers and wildlife habitat which are so badly needed all along the river in the valley.”
The concept layout designs showed the septic field located beneath this space.
Community member Susan Musilli said she was concerned about children playing over a septic field near a river, where children could possibly drown. Another community member, Kelli Mayhew, then commented that those without municipal water likely have children playing in a septic field when playing in their home’s yard.
“That’s going to happen anywhere in a rural area and when you have a septic field,” Mayhew said.
Tuesdae Rice — a resident of the historic district, parent and member of the Valle Crucis School PTA — said she has been notified by an outside broker that there is a pending backup offer for the Hodges property. She said there is now a demand for the property, and if it’s not going to be a school it would likely be developed for another use.
Mayhew added that if people are concerned about the community and aesthetic integrity of the historical designation, then people should raise the question of what is going to go on the site, not whether or not a school should be placed there. The examples she gave of uses that could go there were a pig farm or a townhome complex — if these uses met the architectural designation requirements.
“The architects and engineers have made it clear that a significant portion (of the property) is developable,” Mayhew said. “If we don’t put a school there, what’s the next most likely use? Will it be one that benefits our community as a whole, or will it benefit a private developer? Which would you prefer?”
Community members such as Frank Barry, Lyle Schoenfeldt and Bill Pressly spoke against the proposed location at both the Sept. 3 and Oct. 22 public meetings.
Barry proposed that school officials look at property that he called the “River Run Farm,” and said while the property may be expensive, it would offer more acreage and be higher above the floodplain than the Hodges property.
Schoenfeldt said he and Barry recently met with Elliott and proposed gathering a group of 10 to 12 individuals representing all of the stakeholders to evaluate where the community is in the process of looking for a school site and what would be best for all involved.
“I think we need to pause the process, take a look at what is possible (and) what would really be spectacular in terms of a new school,” Schoenfeldt said.
Those in favor of the property encouraged others to have faith in the school board as elected officials in making the best decision for the community.
Pressly added that he thought the Hodges site was too small for a school and does not meet the North Carolina guidelines of a minimum of 25 acres for a K-8 school. He reiterated concerns from others about the property being in the floodplain and a potential increase for water runoff and mitigation. Dooley was also against the placement of the school on the Hodges property due to it being in the floodplain as well as the school being “crammed” onto the property.
The guidelines from the Department of Public Instruction states that it suggests 10 useable acres for grades K-6 and 15 for grades 5-8. Elliott said to say that the guidelines suggest 25 acres is a “misleading interpretation.”
“The guidelines do not speak specifically to a K-8 school, perhaps because that configuration is fairly uncommon in our state,” Elliott said. “I think the more accurate reading of the guidelines is to look at the higher standard for middle schools and apply it to the whole school.”
According to Elliott, the guideline would suggest 19 acres for a single-story structure for 400 students. He added that the school system proposes a two-story building on the site and has 385 students (including pre-K). After speaking with an architect, Elliott said it is rare in Western North Carolina to find enough land to follow these guidelines.
“These guidelines are intended to be recommendations, but are also flexible based on the site and the programming,” Elliott said.
According to Elliott, the proposed layout of the new school on the Hodges site is similar to the layout of some other schools in the county. For example, the site layout of Cove Creek School and Mabel School each have the building on roughly half of the property and playgrounds on the other half, he said. While Cove Creek has a large area of woodland and farmland, the footprint of the space used for school activity is roughly the same as the proposed Valle Crucis site.
Board Chairman Ron Henries closed out the meeting by saying that the issue is a difficult one and that the board would take comments that were given into consideration.
“There’s no perfect solution,” Henries said. “I wish there was a perfect piece of land right here in the valley that wouldn’t cause a problem. That’s not available.”
Elliott said the board has received a great deal of feedback about the project, and wanted to thank those who attended the meeting.
“Some (feedback) has been questions and concerns, but there has also been a lot of encouragement and support,” Elliott said. “I think most people are ready to get on with deciding on the site and building a new school.”
According to Henries, the board will revisit the issue during its regular meeting on Nov. 4, and additional comments can be made at that time. The contract with the Hodges family for the property in question allows for an inspection period until Nov. 15.