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Lincoln Herald | Lincolnton, NC

home : opinion : opinion October 15, 2019

9/14/2019 11:41:00 AM
Charter School Or No Charter School?

Wayne Howard
Staff Writer

When Lincoln County Commissioners meet Monday evening (Sep. 16th) at 6:30 at the County Administration Building on North Generals Blvd., they'll consider two requests for zoning changes that were the subject of a public hearing last Monday (Sep. 9th) at the James W. Warren Citizens Center.

There's no controversy to the first, recommended for approval 7-0 by the Planning Board. Sara Thompson wants a 1.4-acre lot at 3306 NC16-Business North, next to the Dollar General and directly across from the Denver Drive intersection, changed from General Business to Residential Single Family. There's already a house on the property.

The second request--from Ryan Companies--is a proposal to amend the master plan for The Villages of Cowans Ford to permit construction of the Westlake Charter School at the intersection of Club Drive and NC 73. After a lengthy public hearing last Monday, the Planning Board's recommendation was 4-3 against. 

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As is often the case, there's more to this issue than what is easily apparent.

Commissioners approved a mixed-use development plan that included the property currently under consideration several years ago. While residential developments were completed, the proposed retail sector never was, and the land remains vacant.

Ryan Properties has asked for a rezoning to permit building the charter school serving grades K-8 and an early childhood learning center there.

While opponents--mostly from the residential neighborhoods that were developed after the original zoning--oppose the plan largely because of concerns over traffic, the real choice is whether Commissioners want to approve a school or see a retail complex there (already allowed under current zoning). Residents of the area held two meetings of their own in addition to a required Community Meeting held by the applicant. Almost all of the residents are opposed to the rezoning request because they believe it will cause major traffic problems, especially at the NC 73 and Club Drive intersection.

Westlake Charter began operating this year at Holy Spirit Catholic Church on Highway 16-Business.

An earlier request to build the new school on property between NC16-Business and Airlie Industrial Park, adjacent to Triangle Circle, Rufus Road and Airlie Parkway was approved in November 2017. Enrollment at West Lake Preparatory Academy was originally estimated at 1,145 but that was later reduced to 765. The school would operate kindergarten through sixth grade, then expand by one grade each year until it becomes a K-8 operation.

That original proposed location got scrapped because of legal problems. One of the subcontractors working with developers wound up with a lien against part of the property. The charter school builders backed away from that location.

Former County Commissioner (and an already announced candidate for next year's election) Martin Oakes said at last Monday's public hearing that the original location is still viable: "About 18 months ago the charter school and the Rivercross Developer had a signed agreement, and a county-approved plan which is still valid. When they went to close, they discovered that one of the developer’s subcontractors from another project had filed a lien on the property, among others. Normally a trip to a judge could have resolved it, but the subcontractor had filed bankruptcy – in federal court. Eight months later the mess was untangled and the property deed is now clean.

"Today the developer has an approved site for a charter school – for Westlake Prep, or another Lincoln Charter campus, or another charter school with an existing state approval. The developer would need to spend about $200,000 on a new site plan and traffic study to change the currently approved plan, so he’s motivated to put a school there – any school.

"If you reject the Club Drive site, Westlake can go back to Triangle Circle, sign the previously agreed contract, and have bulldozers working within the week."

We talked with a spokesman for Ryan Companies who said Oakes' statement is not accurate. One of the Board members of Westlake Charter suggested that Oakes' opinion is based largely on his desire to help a political supporter who would benefit from the sale of the Triangle Circle property.

Opinions expressed by Commissioners have varied. At Monday night's hearing, both Commissioners Anita McCall and Chairman Carrol Mitchem questioned the traffic projections supplied by the applicants. Much of the information involved the expected (already approved) expansion of NC 73 to a four-lane 'superhighway.' The traffic study was provided by the NC Department of Transportation.

This reporter, in preparing an article about the upcoming hearing, spent an hour and a half at the intersection of NC 73 and Club Drive in late August. It was during the 'afternoon drive-time' period (5:15-6:45 PM). The most vehicles I saw waiting in line for the light to change so they could get on NC 73 from Club Drive was three. Traffic on NC 73 was heavy--especially westbound.

If the rezoning is not approved, some believe the result will be the eventual development of retail at that location--already permitted under current zoning. One valid question may be: which will create more traffic problems--retail development or a charter school?

If the rezoning request is denied, will Ryan Properties (and Charter Schools, USA, the firm chosen to operate the school) build in another location? Comments at the Planning Board's separate session last Monday appeared to indicate that they may decide just to scrap the project.

If the charter school isn't built, it appears very likely that Lincoln County will have to build another school for the Lincoln County Schools to handle the expected population growth in the area. The cost of that isn't certain--but appears to be $23-$40 million depending on what design in chosen and where it's built.

Unlike last Monday's public hearing, which was moved to the James W. Warren Citizens Center to accomodate the large crowd, this Monday's meeting will be in the Commissioners Meeting Room at the Lincoln County Administration Building on North Generals Blvd. The meeting will begin at 6:30 PM.

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