Just over one year ago, March 2019, it was announced that the Watauga County Board of Education had approved the purchase of the Hodges property in historic Valle Crucis for a new Valle Crucis school. This action was taken in closed session and was not disclosed on the agenda or minutes of the meeting.
There was no public discussion, and thus the plan for new Valle Crucis School was a surprise to all. While the idea of a new Valle Crucis School was initially welcomed, we have learned a great deal in the intervening year.
In late July 2019, several Valle residents organized a petition drive for those with concerns about the proposed location of the Valle Crucis school. While virtually all residents favor a new Valle Crucis school there are many apprehensions. To date, more than 430 people endorsed the petition and 149 offered thoughtful and sincere comments about their concerns. This is a very large number of citizens having issues with the project as presented.
The concerns expressed in the comments can be summarized as follows:
• A new Valle Crucis school on the proposed Hodges property would threaten the Valle Crucis status as a National Rural Historic District, a designation that residents worked hard to achieve.
• The Hodges property proposed for the new school is not suitable in that 90% of the 14 acres is in the floodplain. The usable portion of the property would not be within recommended NC guidelines as sufficient acreage for the proposed building, ingress, egress, parking and other requirements.
• The 14 acres of the proposed Hodges property at $1.1 million dollars ($78,000/acre for undeveloped floodplain land) is way overpriced. The appraisal that set the value at over $1 million was seriously flawed.
• There are better sites along Broadstone Road for the location of a new Valle Crucis school. The sites offer more land and would be significantly removed from the floodplain.
• The flow of vehicles from Broadstone to a school on the Hodges property would be a traffic nightmare given that the property is on a blind curve.
• The school on the Hodges property would be a determent to the aesthetic and serene character of the area and would be a serious threat to neighboring property, both commercial and residential.
• The school and the proposed septic for 600 people, along with runoff, would have a negative environmental impact on the area and the adjoining Watauga River, a designated high-quality waterway.
• The budgeted cost of the proposed school, $35 million, would make it the most expensive K-8 school in NC. The extra cost, estimated at approximately $15 million, would be for site preparation and flood mitigation. (I should mention that this last concern is not in the petition comments but raised at a public hearing and verified by the project architect.)
Even though these issues are well known to the Watauga County Board of Education through the petitions and comments, virtually none has been adequately addressed as the decision time to purchase the Hodges property is upon us. These are serious concerns on behalf of a vast number of residents, yet the project seemingly moves forward as if there were no issues.
Now, even in the last few weeks, we find ourselves in a whole new reality that would question whether this project can go forward at this time from a Watauga County tax revenue perspective. The coronavirus pandemic has unplugged the consumer-driven economy and the tax revenue that flowed from it. The depths of the downturn will soon become evident, but we all know that it will be serious both nationwide and in Watauga County. Many projects will need to be deferred. It does not seem like a favorable time to move forward with greenlighting a $35 million Valle Crucis School.
It is proposed that the Watauga County Board of Education and the Watauga County Commissioners further discuss the proposed Valle Crucis school in respective open forums and vote to defer the project at the present time. Both the board of education and county commissioners should take this up before the closing on the Hodges property, scheduled for later this April.
By Lyle Schoenfeldt, Valle resident and chairman, steering committee