Possible conflicts stall Galax school plan

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Four members of the planning commission considering the school system’s zoning request for a new school have ties to Galax schools, which could be conflicts of interest.

By Shannon Watkins

After a public hearing on building a new elementary school and athletic facilities, the Galax Planning Commission decided not to take action after it was brought to their attention that some members might have conflicts of interest because of their connections to the school system.
About 20 people showed up for the hearing on May 20, eight of which registered to speak. After a brief welcome, School Superintendent Bill Sturgill stood up to address the topic of building the new elementary school and athletic facilities in a residential section of Galax.

“This plan does represent the same plan that was presented back to the city council,” Sturgill advised.
He said there were three adjustments to the site plan: five of the six rights of way on the property would be used to help distribute traffic, as opposed to only three in the earlier draft; designated conservation areas were marked and buffer areas were created to help separate residences from the school facilities.
The property, which is owned by three private citizens, is located in a residential area bounded roughly by Fries Road, Frazier Road and Kenbrook Drive.
The first registered speaker, attorney Ashley Rudolph of the law offices of Kendall Clay, said she represented “a group of concerned landowners whose property will be greatly affected by the decision you’re making tonight.” Rudolph later said that some of the citizens were at the public hearing but declined to identify them.
She brought up the conflict of interest issue.
“Three members of this panel have a business or financial relationship [as defined by Virginia legal code] with the applicant,” she said, advising the members that they should be ineligible to vote or participate at any hearing on the matter.
The three members in question — Brandon Boyles, Cathy Parks and Jeff Sharpe — all identified themselves at the beginning of the meeting as having direct or family connections with the school system, which Rudolph thanked them for.
Boyles’ wife is a teacher, Parks is a teacher and Sharpe is the school system’s coordinator of support services. Dr. Jim Adams, a member of both the school board and the planning commission, had already declined to participate in the hearing because of the conflict of interest.
“By the state code in this section, the school board, as applicant in the case, should have filed a statement — in writing, and under oath — identifying the name and address of each person who falls under the code section’s definition of having a business or financial relationship with the school board when they filed their application,” said Rudolph. She warned that violation of the code was punishable as a Class I misdemeanor.
Rudolph said that although City Attorney Jim Cornwell believed verbal disclosure of these relationships and a promise of fair decision would be sufficient, she did not agree. She advised that the code should be taken seriously, and members should recuse themselves or pass on taking any action until the city attorney could look further into the matter.
Rudolph also said that the lack of written plans for the handling of stormwater drainage and erosion on the property were a concern in her eyes, especially given that some homeowners in the area had already experienced flooding with the property as it currently stood. She described it as “wetland area” and advised that a similar situation of a school being built in King William County resulted in a homeowner’s property destruction through flooding, which led to a lawsuit.

Citizens Speak
Other speakers, all of whom said they lived in the neighborhoods that would be affected, also expressed unhappiness at the proposed project. Various speakers cited concerns about water drainage, light pollution, privacy and safety.
“By state code and federal law, a permit must be filed to build on or around a wetland area,” said former Galax High School Principal Jody Ray, warning that the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Virginia Department of Game and Wildlife needed to be consulted on the project.
Ray said that he had previously sunk up to his waist in a marshier spot on the property, and asked the commission to consider a child in the same situation.
Cindy Eagle asked numerous questions, touching on drainage and inquiring about traffic patterns and whether her street would be used for additional parking.
Sturgill told her all parking for the facilities would be onsite only. He also told her that a barrier wall, which she said she was interested in, had not been discussed yet beyond a vegetative barrier.
To her concerns about light pollution, Zoning Administrator and City Manager Keith Barker informed her that the only lights would be parking lot lights, with no field lighting. “This is not set up to be, to my understanding, high-school athletic facilities,” he said.
“Are they going to consider having police cars for the sporting events?” Eagle asked of  security.
“These are practice fields,” said Sturgill. “These would be kids who would be there in the afternoon practicing. We’re not proposing to have our games there. It’s just creating places for our kids to practice after high school.”
Eagle’s final question was how long before any of this would take place.
“That’s a much later discussion with the school system, but we’re probably talking anywhere from five to 12 years before you see anything happen,” said Barker. “A project of this magnitude, there’s a lot of pieces to look at.”
After a few other speakers addressed the commission with general dissatisfaction, former school board member Susie Garner expressed sympathy with the dissenters, but offered the idea that some families with small children might prefer to live near the school and that the fate of property values was still unknown.
She also said that, though some felt the need for a new facility was due to nonresident students, their presence resulted in more state funding and expanded programs. Environmental issues, she said, would always need consideration no matter where the new building was put.
“Nobody likes change,” Garner said. “I don’t like change. But I feel like our city has tried to be proactive and progressive and move us forward. I would hate to see us turn around and stop being a progressive city.”
More speakers got up to express further concerns about traffic, the safety of kids who might cross over to private property and be injured on swing sets or in pools. The planning commission members were even asked to come walk the private properties and see how close the new facilities would be to the speakers’ houses.

Answering Concerns
Sturgill spoke again, confirming that it was not viable to remodel the existing elementary school, and that it has inferior technology and HVAC systems. “It is not feasibly responsible to upgrade that old building,” he said. “You can put a lot of money into improving it, and in eight years or so it could present you with another issue from a safety standpoint.”
As for the wetlands issue, he said that the school system is prepared to deal with the springheads on the proposed school property.
“The runoff in this community will be better than it is now,” he said. “We had architects on the property, studying the property. We’ll have the answers to how the water will be handled. We understand we have to communicate with many different agencies. You don’t build this kind of facility without jumping through all the hoops with all the agencies that have oversight of construction. So we most certainly will do all that.”
He advised that the facility would still have to be built somewhere within the city, and could not be in either of the counties. He even invited the audience to help in the search for a different location if the current one does not go through.

Commission Comments
Planning commission members also gave comments.
“While I respectfully disagree with Ms. Rudolph’s interpretation of the code,” said Boyles, “I think that before we go any further, we may want to have Jim Cornwell give a more detailed opinion as to whether or not the three of us who have connections to the school system should cast a vote. And I would say that if that is the opinion that’s ultimately given, there’s nothing that we can do.”
Cornwell, texting in response to in inquiry by Barker at the meeting, said he did not think there was a conflict of interest, but advised the commission to use abundant caution.
He indicated he could give more detail at Tuesday night’s city council meeting. (The meeting is being held a day late because of the Memorial Day holiday.)
“People keep saying, ‘If you were in my shoes...’” about the school’s proposed location, said Cathy Parks, who lives on Sherry Lane. “I just want to say, I AM in your shoes. My backyard is Mountain View Park.”
She said that her neighborhood in West Galax had the same concerns about the Mountainview Park coming in at the time. “I must say, things have worked very well,” Parks informed the crowd. “The park has worked in harmony with the neighborhood. With schools, it’s a limited time span [each day] that you have the schools populated.”
Parks also mentioned that, as a result of the school, residents would get upgraded water and sewer service. Some residents had complained about low water pressure.
On behalf of the project, she said, “The children are our future.”
The planning commission finally agreed to hold off voting until the city attorney could be consulted about the legal status of the three members with ties to the school system.
“As you can see, a decision of this magnitude is not taken lightly,” said Planning Commission Chairman Ron Catron.