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Schools: Shutdown and birds stall charter building plans

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Plans for a charter school building on a portion of the Prince George property were close to receiving federal environmental approval before the government shut down this month. With that document missing, the school can’t move ahead with an application for a $5.5 million federal loan, and it now plans to extend its stay at Waccamaw Middle School for another year.

Coastal Montessori Charter School has a contract to buy about 100 acres on the west side of Highway 17 from the USC Development Foundation. It wants to build a school on 10 acres to accommodate grades one through eight. Development is restricted by wetlands and colonies of red-cockaded woodpeckers, which are on the federal list of endangered species.

There are two colonies that impact the proposed school site. One is actually east of the highway, on property also owned by the University of South Carolina foundation. The school thought it had a plan to meet the buffer requirement, said Kristin Bohan, a member of the charter school board. But it learned on Oct. 2 that the mandated buffers for the two nests, which overlap, may require the school to move its proposed building.

The board isn’t sure because they haven’t been able to talk with anyone from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service because of federal employee furloughs, she said.

The building site is close to Highway 17. Behind the building footprint is an archaeological site that can’t be disturbed. Moving the building farther from the highway could require additional environmental study, Bohan said.

The school hopes to borrow the money to buy the property and build the school from a program of the Rural Development agency, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The loan documents have been ready since May, Bohan said.

Since the school reached an agreement with the USC Development Foundation, the foundation’s plans to sell property on the east side of the highway have come under fire from the Coastal Conservation League. The property was acquired from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which got the property when it shut down a failed savings and loan association.

USC’s involvement allowed private developers to acquire the oceanfront portion of the tract and other land for homesites. The university got wetlands and other critical habitat.

“It was never to be developed,” said Nancy Cave, director of the league’s office in Georgetown.

The conservation group doesn’t object to the school’s purchase, she said.

Cave met with Bohan and Scott Steffen, another charter board member, last month.

“We all had a mutual understanding of the goal to preserve that environment,” Steffen said.

The Coastal Conservation League would like to see a buyer for the east side of Prince George that would preserve the land in exchange for a tax break.

The charter school plans to build the protected habitat on its property into its curriculum. “The kids will know about tar kilns and red-cockaded woodpeckers,” Bohan said.

They’ve also learned something about government. They hosted a visit by USDA officials. Students were excited, said Rob Horvath, who chairs the charter board.

So were the officials, Bohan said. But getting the loan into their hands hinges on resolving the environmental issues.

It’s too late to build a school for 2014. The school has asked the district to let it stay another year at Waccamaw Middle, where it opened last year.

“I don’t see any problem,” Superintendent Randy Dozier said. “They’re still our kids. We try to look at it like that.”

In the meantime, the charter school launched a capital campaign with a goal of raising $275,000. That’s equal to 5 percent of the federal loan, a figure that USDA staff told the charter board will help show public support for the project.

The campaign will only run through Oct. 25, with donors only needing to pledge an amount to be paid when the loan is approved. Pledge packages went out Monday. By Tuesday, the school had over $100,000 in pledges. It will also count another $50,000 of engineering and permitting costs toward its goal. And Bohan said those costs are likely to increase.

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