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Shining Rock’s permit denied — for now — on Raccoon Road site

fr shiningrockShining Rock Classical Academy was sent back to the drawing board Monday night on its proposed location, continuing a nearly three-month saga on where the new charter school will go.

The Waynesville planning board denied a special use permit for Shining Rock’s latest proposed site: a cornfield in the Francis Cove community on the outskirts of town.

Many opponents who came to the hearing have family roots in Francis Cove that date back generations, and equated the charter school with destroying the landscape that’s paramount to their cultural heritage. 

“We have been here for 215 years and a bunch of people that ain’t from here are going to come here and put up three mobile units so the rest of us have to stare at it,” said David Boone, who is a seventh-generation descendent of the first Francis Cove settlers.

The planning board ruled that the charter school failed to meet the criteria for a special use permit, primarily on the grounds that the plan didn’t conform to the character of the community or do enough to allay traffic concerns.

Traffic will back up in the road during morning drop-off and afternoon pick-up, blockading a major commuter route in and out of town, opponents argued.

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“There is no way one entrance can handle the traffic that is going to occur at this location. We are going to have a traffic nightmare,” said Lisa Nelson, a nearby resident.

Around 150 people packed into the public hearing held at town hall. The standing-room only crowd was mostly opposed to the charter school locating on a 32-acre tract at the corner of U.S. 276 and Raccoon Road.

After the meeting, Shining Rock board member Nancy East said they weren’t deterred and will keep trying, however.

“We’ll persevere. We’ll figure it out as we go,” East said. “The school isn’t going anywhere. We’ll get there.”


A long night

The public hearing Monday tested the stamina and resolve of those in the Francis Cove community. Many in the audience had been standing up for nearly six hours by the time the hearing ended after 10 p.m.

Opponents began assembling in the foyer outside the meeting room an hour-and-a-half before the hearing started in hopes of getting a seat, but even those who came early were out of luck, with people outnumbering chairs 3-to-1.

By the time the hearing started, people were sitting on the floor, perched on window sills, lining the walls, standing in rows four deep at the back of the room, and spilling into the hallway. 

Robert Kerley said the crowd itself should count for something.

“These people have been waiting here for four-and-a-half hours to give our thoughts, waiting to speak to you. It’s our neighborhood. We live there,” Kerley said toward the conclusion of the meeting.

But a headcount of who’s for and against it isn’t the decision-making criteria, said Ron Sneed, the attorney for the Waynesville planning board.

“If you make your decision based on the number of people who like it or don’t like it you aren’t doing your job,” he told the planning board. 

“So the fact that the lion’s share of people in this room are completely opposed to a school being located on this piece of property is completely irrelevant,” Jon Fiechter, a planning board member, confirmed.

Nonetheless, the opposition was a textbook example of effective grassroots organizing. Neighbors went door-to-door in recent weeks and held their own community meetings to plan their talking points. A team of residents even did their own traffic study — essentially counting cars at the intersections — in preparation for the meeting.

The charter school didn’t have its plans fleshed out enough to show the special use permit criteria were being met, Planning Board Member Rob Hermann said.

“Where and when and how — we haven’t been given all the information we need,” said Hermann.

Zeb Smathers, an attorney representing the Francis Cove community, said the charter school didn’t do its homework.

“When you rush an assignment, and it is incomplete, you don’t pass,” Smathers said.

Shining Rock Board Chair Tara Keilberg said the “no” vote wasn’t an insurmountable setback.

“I’m not shaken and I’m not afraid,” Keilberg said after the meeting.

Keilberg said the school could adjust its plans and try for the permit again, armed with more details. Even if the vote had gone the other way, Shining Rock wouldn’t have been out of the weeds yet. School leaders were bracing for an appeal of the permit by Francis Cove residents, even if it had been green lighted by the planning board.

“We anticipated that even if we prevailed tonight it would be appealed,” Keilberg said. 

The vibe of the hearing oscillated over its four-hour duration. At times it took on the feel of a heated courtroom debate, with needling cross-examinations.

Other times it was a droning technical review of town land-use ordinances and traffic studies. And yet other times, it took on the feel of a protest rally, with clapping and booing by the sign-waving crowd.

No one from the public spoke in support of Shining Rock, although several parents or teachers from the school were in the audience. No one present from the Shining Rock board chose to speak during the hearing, either.

The school director Ben Butler only spoke a single sentence in response to a direct question.

Instead, Shining Rock leaders relied on engineer Patrick Bradshaw of Waynesville-based Civil Design Concepts to state their case for the permit. Bradshaw was hired by the school to formulate a site plan, oversee site testing and shepherd the permitting process.


What now?

The proposed location is the second one Shining Rock has set its sights on. It abandoned plans in June for another location near the Ratcliffe Cove Road and Old Asheville Highway intersection due to mounting costs and site delays — including a legal challenge to its special use permit for that location.

School leaders have secured a short-term lease for a building at Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center that will serve as a temporary location, but it only runs through December. Keilberg said the school could remain at Lake Junaluska beyond December by extending its lease.

School leaders hoped to have a new site up and running by the second half of the school year — a plan that consisted of buying vacant property and outfitting it with modular units.

It was an ambitious plan given the various permits to secure, utilities to run, state roads to widen with extra turn lanes, grading to do and modular buildings to haul in.

“The school is boasting on its website ‘we are going to be in our trailers by December,’” Robert Price, a Francis Cove resident, said at the hearing. “We feel like that is a premature.”

Price said the publicly touted timeline was putting pressure on the planning board to hurry up and approve it. With the school failing its first pass at a special use permit, the timeline of a permanent location by January may be out of reach.

Bradshaw reminded the planning board that it had previously approved a special use permit for Shining Rock to locate on a tract the Ratcliffe Cove site, not far from the currently proposed tract in Francis Cove.

“We are here to discuss the same project, same school, on a different location,” Bradshaw said, claiming a “thread of continuity” should apply from the previous site to the new one.

However, the attorney who provides advice to the planning board said one did not beget the other.

“There is no precedential value to you having made that decision on another site,” Sneed told the planning board.

Bradshaw also pointed out that all the schools built by the Haywood County school system in recent years have been sited on open land in rural settings, and this is no different.

Pat Smathers — who is the attorney for the Haywood County School Board — also represented the Francis Cove community at the hearing, and he rejected the comparison.

“Those schools underwent two- or three-year planning and design processes. How long have you been hired to do the design and preparation of this project?” Smathers asked.

Bradshaw estimated less than 60 days.

Smathers said it is a disservice to prematurely rush into a plan that would forever alter the character of the community. 

“It’s time to take time,” Smathers said. “This is not something you are going to plan in two months. That’s about all the time that’s been put into this site. Two months. That’s it. They want to bring in trailers to an empty cornfield and have a school. That’s their plan. That’s it.”

Shining Rock voted to buy the site in July. 


Not over yet

As the planning board’s inclination to vote “no” became apparent during deliberations, Bradshaw urged its members to hold off on a vote and table the application rather than vote it down on the spot.

Bradshaw said the school could refine the traffic study, provide more information on the long-term plans for the property and hone in on missing data related to the site’s suitability.

“I’m in agreement that we don’t want to be in a hurry. We will take the necessary time and necessary resources to get a better traffic study done,” Bradshaw said.

But the audience expressed its disapproval of waiting. If the school failed to meet the criteria for a special use permit at the current juncture, it should be voted down, opponents argued.

The planning board ultimately concurred that it should vote on the merits of the application as it stood that night. 

“There are too many questions to ask back to them to even get the information to make a decision,” said Planning Board Member Shell Isenberg.

However, that doesn’t preclude the charter school from reapplying at any time.

The charter school board now has a decision to make: to try again with a better application, to appeal the planning board’s decision, or to cut their losses and look for a site elsewhere.

“The board will deliberate and will determine what our next step will be,” said Butler.

The Shining Rock board will hold its next monthly meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 24, at its leased school building at Lake Junaluska.


Financial feasibility

Opponents questioned whether Shining Rock had the financial means to make the site work.

“You really need to ask yourself about the financial viability,” Pat Smathers said. “It will not work if they aren’t successful because they can’t bear the cost.”

If that happened, the school would be abandoned and leave behind an eyesore, Smathers said. The property cost $1.1 million, but it could take hundreds of thousands more to ready the site. It could cost $200,000 just to build the necessary turn lanes on Raccoon Road and U.S. 276.

Plus there’s the cost of running water and sewer lines to the property, putting in an emergency exit road, building a parking lot, grading building pads, putting in required landscaping, leasing the modular units and putting window dressing on them so they don’t look like modulars. 

And, there’s the sticky wicket of how much Shining Rock owes in damages for a corn crop partly destroyed by a contractor surveying the site in advance of environmental testing.

Pat Smathers said financial viability is a relevant question to ask in connection with the special use permit, since utilities and infrastructure are one of the criteria.

“Does the town have any knowledge that the proposed developer has the funds?” Pat Smathers asked.

The school is being funded through state and county tax dollars, however it’s not a part of the Haywood County public school system. Charter schools get a cut of public education money based on the number of students who attend — about $6,500 per student.

That money has to cover teacher salaries and all the overhead of running a school, with enough left over to pay for the land, site work and modular buildings.

Pat Smathers questioned whether enrollment — which has been downwardly revised in recent weeks from earlier projections — would bring in sufficient revenue to make the school a go.

Several opponents questioned whether they would be left with an eyesore if the school failed.

“We have no assurances this structure will succeed,” said Steve Amodio, a homeowner in the nearby Quail Ridge subdivision. “We have no proper knowledge of the proper persons responsible for this project.”

Meanwhile, Shining Rock spent nearly $80,000 pursuing the first site that’s no longer in the running. It now has a $40,000 contract in play for the preliminary site planning, surveying, testing and permitting of the current site.

If the school cuts its losses now, it won’t be out the full $40,000, as some aspects of the due diligence wouldn’t be carried out. But every site the school explores that doesn’t work costs time and money.

“I wouldn’t say it is wasted. It is just part of due diligence,” East said.

Keilberg said while the school certainly doesn’t want to spend money on a site that won’t work out — citing lessons learned on the last site — she said the school is fine financially.


Time and place

Charter school opponents dislike the idea of taking money from traditional public schools and giving it to charter schools, which they claim aren’t accessible to all, given the lack of door-to-door bus routes and free lunches, and don’t have to answer to voters like elected school boards do.

Supporters claim charter schools are laboratories of innovation that offer alternatives and choices to the one-size-all education model of larger public school systems.

But those varying philosophical views weren’t supposed to be part of the decision making process on the special use permit.

“A lot of you here may have opposition to the charter schools,” Sneed, the attorney for the planning board, told the audience at the outset of the hearing. “A lot of people don’t like tax money being siphoned off from public schools to go to charter schools. The state has decided we will have charter schools paid for with tax money. If you don’t like that, go to Raleigh.”

While a few editorial comments about charter schools snuck into the discussion, speakers largely steered clear of charter school pros and cons and stuck to the message that the proposed location was ill-suited to a school of any ilk.

Lisa Nelson, who spoke against the site, said the takeaway message shouldn’t be that the charter school was struck down. Rather, the planning board’s vote was about preserving the character of a community.

Still, it was the only venue to date that came close to a community forum on the new charter school in Haywood’s midst, and the undertone was always lurking in the background.


Charting choppy waters

Town Planner Elizabeth Teague had a delicate role to play at the hearing. She tried to create an objective framework for the discussion, despite the inherently subjective questions being posed to the planning board.

Teague also acknowledged that despite her long career in the community planning and development arena, she has only been with the town of Waynesville for a month.

“I am new to this town and I don’t want to presume to know the goals of this board. I want to help you and don’t want to be wishy-washy in a recommendation,” Teague said. But, “In this case I am being completely honest, I think you can approve this but I also think it is problematic.”

The burden of proof was ultimately up to the charter school.

“Have they proven anything to you? No, they have not.” Pat Smathers said. “At least put it off until somebody in this organization can provide some answers to y’all.”

Pat Smathers then delivered a closing statement akin to a lawyer preaching to a jury in a court trial.

He walked through the six criteria of a special use permit and summed up why he thought the school missed each one.

“Fails, no pass….Fails, no pass….Absolute failure,” Smathers said, ticking down the list of criteria.


The character test

One of the chief factors in the special use permit was whether the school was in keeping with the community character. To determine that, Teague referred the planning board to the town’s adopted land-use plan, which describes a vision for various districts of town. 

For Francis Cove, low-density residential and agriculture are the predominant characteristics outlined in town’s vision.

“Maintaining the rural character of this area will be an important focus,” Teague read from the stated goals in land-use plan regarding the Francis Cove area.

Teague acknowledged that a school would impact the neighborhood’s future character.

“A school at this location is a difficult one to commit to,” Teague said. “I don’t see a definitive yes or no answer.”

Tanna Timbes, a resident with deep family roots in Francis Cove, said the stated vision for the community was crafted more than a dozen years ago with input from residents who attended a series of town hall meetings during development of the land-use plan.

“It was requested that we come up with our vision for Francis Cove. Some of those people are here tonight,” Timbes said. “Our neighborhood needs you to say ‘no.’”

Alan Walker, who lives nearby on Crymes Cove, said prime farmland is a precious and dwindling resource.

“Let’s not cover up our farmland with buildings. It’s what we need to eat and where we need to grow our food,” Walker said.

One of the many conundrums facing the planning board was the two-fold nature of the proposed school. In the short term, the school plans to setup modular buildings to accommodate 250 to 300 students. But in the long run, as the school grows, it would build a permanent building to accommodate more than 550 students.

Since the future building is an unknown, however, the planning board had to consider the plan as presented and nothing more, Teague said.

“For this permit, we are taking it as it is,” Teague said.

And that meant sizing up how modular units fit into the community’s character, not how some future school building may or may not look.

Opponents said the modular buildings weren’t up to snuff.

“Clustered modular buildings are totally unlike any other buildings in the neighborhood. You won’t find anything that looks like that in the Francis Cove neighborhood,” Pat Smathers said. “So they failed on that one.”

Teague said that the school planned to “dress up” the modular units to “soften the look.” But Planning Board Member Philip Gibbs said at the end of the day they are still modular units.

“To me, it seems like it doesn’t meet the vision of the community,” Gibbs said.

“We are talking about putting in some buildings that are different than the existing use in my opinion,” agreed Planning Board Member Jon Fiechter. “I don’t know that we can say that this site conforms to the character of the community one way or another.”

Bradshaw said the school would only use about 9 acres of the total 32-acre tract, leaving lots of open space.

“This amount of open space will allow Shining Rock to maintain the character of the surrounding neighborhood,” Bradshaw said.

But Pat Smathers challenged what assurance the community had that the rest of the site wouldn’t be built on in the future.

“Are you aware of any proposal that the remaining acreage will be set aside under a restricted use, never to be developed?” Smathers said.

Bradshaw replied that there is no official conservation easement to ensure today’s open space remained as such, but pointed out that the site would certainly retain more open space as a school than it would if purchased by a private developer for a housing subdivision.

Planning Board Member Marty Prevost questioned whether a residential development would create just as much traffic.

Down the road, if and when the school wanted to build a real school building or alter its footprint on the site in any way, it would have to come back to the planning board for new approval.

“If the development envelope went beyond the current 8 or 9 acres, we would be back before this board to grow that use,” Bradshaw said.

But opponents said if a special use permit was approved today, the future approval would be a fait accompli.

“Nobody is going to reject the follow-on buildings once you approve the first ones,” said Robert Price, a resident who spoke at the hearing.

Both planning board members and opponents in the audience had several questions about future plans, which are largely unknown.

Would there be sports fields one day with lighting? How much bigger would the parking lot need to be — it now calls for only 70 spaces — if the school grew to 500 students, including high schoolers who drive their own cars to school?

The current site plan doesn’t show a playground, but unless elementary-aged children will simply be turned out in a field to play, there would surely be a playground in the future, and planning board members wanted to know where that would go and whether it would create noise for neighbors.

Planning board members also asked several questions about the suitability of the site, from soil to hydrology. Bradshaw said those surveys are pending.

The school would have had them done already, but a dispute with a farmer who leases the property to grow corn on has prevented them from going on the property.

Crews hired to do testing drove around in the corn earlier this month, destroying part of the crop. The farmer lawyered up and barred the school from coming on the property again until the parties have agreed on appropriate compensation for the damage.


Traffic concerns

The biggest concern about the proposed location was how traffic during pick-up and drop-off would be handled — something Fiechter called the “800-pound gorilla.”

Shining Rock commissioned a traffic study as requirement of the special use permit, but it wasn’t shared with the planning board or the public until the night of the hearing.

Traffic projections predict around 320 vehicles will be coming and going to the school each morning and afternoon during drop-off and pick-up if the school reaches a build out of 570 students.

Meanwhile, a loop road on the campus is only long enough to accommodate a line of around 120 vehicles.

Bradshaw said that was adequate because the line would be moving, and the full traffic volume would never be in line all at once.

Lisa Nelson, a retired teacher, said that’s not true based on parent pick-up patterns at other schools.

“They line up early and park on the road waiting,” Nelson said.

The plan calls for turn lanes to be built in both directions approaching the school, so vehicles waiting to turn in won’t block through traffic.

But John Queen, a nearby property owner, questioned that theory, citing the traffic count of 3,000 vehicles a day on Raccoon Road.

“That traffic comes and goes all day. It is constant. It is a bypass around Waynesville,” Queen said.

Everyone coming and going to the school will have to wait for breaks in thru traffic to turn in and out.

“Those cars have got to enter and exit one at a time. How long does that take?” Queen said.

Virginia Song, who lives near the proposed site, said her commute to drop her own kids off at Junaluska Elementary would be stymied by Shining Rock traffic.

“I want you to think about what this will do to us as parents,” Song said. “Not only will we have to get in the line and wait to pick our own children up at Junaluska Elementary, we will have to sit in line on Raccoon Road.”

Pat Smathers said those attending Shining Rock will be coming from outside the community and even outside the county, creating a different sort of traffic dynamic than a school serving the neighborhood where it is located.

Planning board members questioned the traffic study as not thorough enough.

“What evidence have we seen that indicates that there is an adequate traffic plan to address the extra traffic on that road? Personally I haven’t seen it,” Fiechter said.

The town would require a second driveway onto campus in case the main entrance was blocked. It would be used only in the event of an emergency. One option called for this emergency exit to connect with a private residential road, but residents who live on that road said that wouldn’t be an option.

“I own Bluegrass Lane. You aren’t going to use Bluegrass Lane, no, I’m sorry,” said David Boone, waving his finger as the school folks in the audience, prompting a round of applause from opponents.

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