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Education: County approves charter school site

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

There will be no tax increase to stave off higher fire insurance rates in the Murrells Inlet-Garden City Fire District — for now.

Coastal Montessori Charter School took a big step toward finding a permanent home this week when members of Georgetown County Council approved second reading of an amendment to the Allston Plantation “planned development” over objections from neighbors who were concerned about traffic.

Council Member Ron Charlton told constituents from his district that the S.C. Department of Transportation was sensitive to safety concerns regarding school traffic and suggested a speed limit of 45 miles per hour during school hours would be appropriate. “Once you get a chance to review those plans and see what DOT has come up with,” Charlton told residents of Allston Plantation and Hagley Estates, “you will feel more comfortable.”

More than a dozen neighbors of the proposed school spoke against the proposal. Don Corinna, a member of the Camden Creek Property Owners Association in Allston Plantation, presented a list of nine objections and recommendations that included restricting school traffic from using Barony Place, the only street running into the neighborhood from Highway 17. “Any inconvenience to the Camden Creek community is of significant concern, however, our greatest concern is for the ultimate safety of all persons traveling through those intersections,” he said. His suggestion to establish Old Plantation Drive in Hagley as the “primary point of ingress and egress” was met with a “boo” from one member of the audience.

Camden Creek resident Marie Aycock said she was not opposed to schools, “just not in our neighborhood.” She worried that emergency vehicles would not be able to get through when school traffic blocked the roads and that the school will change the character of her community. “More traffic means more crime,” she said. “This will destroy our neighborhood.”

Camden Creek resident Ed Poirier said school traffic might be less than what would be generated by commercial businesses but it would take place within a two-hour time frame as opposed to a full day. “That seems troublesome,” he said. He asked about a high school being added later and for a diagram of the student loading zone with the proposed traffic pattern.

The charter school now has students in grades one through six. It plans to add middle school grades, but won’t have a high school.

Leah Petree-Angone, who said she was representing residents of Hagley Estates, said the traffic danger outweighs the benefit of the school. “Move it to property that has been OK’d for a school,” she said.

Robert Horvath, chairman of the Coastal Montessori Charter School board, said there was a lot of incorrect information circulating. “We are trying to do a good thing,” he said. “We know it’s not going to be easy. We don’t want accidents, and we are willing to do what we need to do. We plan on being a good neighbor.”

The school, which is sponsored by the Georgetown County School District, opened in 2012 in a vacant wing at Waccamaw Middle School. It has 180 students, most of whom arrive by car. Although charter schools receive public funds, they get no money for transportation or for facilities.

Kristin Bohan, one of the founders of the Montessori school, said the location has to satisfy the U.S. Justice Department. School officials had looked at over 20 sites, she said. “We were delighted to find this six acres, and quite frankly it was a miracle to find a place for our grass-roots elementary school. I am proud of making Montessori public in Georgetown County. I know Coastal Montessori will be good stewards of the land and a good member of the school district.”

Barbara Howell, a resident of Hagley and a volunteer at the Montessori school, said it will fit perfectly in the community. “Hagley attracts people who don’t want rules,” she said. “Hagley is very fortunate to have this caring group of people and this progressive school in our neighborhood.”

The school’s attorney, Dan Stacy, said he found the vigorous objections to the Montessori school on land zone for commercial development puzzling . “I can usually predict the pressure points,” he said. “This has me baffled. This is a down-zoning, which is what most people prefer.”

Bo Bryan, a member of the charter school board, said he could read between the lines and didn’t believe safety was the main concern of neighbors. “When I hear a lot of talk about safety,” he said, “it means ‘not in my backyard.’ DOT can keep it as safe as possible. People don’t want to sit at a traffic light, so they say it’s about safety.”

He said the school was out of options for a location because the Justice Department had given it a limited range to place the school. “We’ve done all the looking we can do,” Bryan said. “The area is suitable, zoned for commercial use. If it doesn’t happen here. It really may not happen.”

Boyd Johnson, the county planning director, told council members the Planning Commission had unanimously recommended the change in the “planned development” with certain conditions regarding traffic. Prior to county council’s third reading, members of the planning commission will review the DOT traffic study.

Johnson said the school building will be 49,060 square feet with classrooms taking up 25,060 square feet. The school plans to increase the front setback from 50 feet to 90 feet and use 70 percent pervious surface on its parking lot. He added that DOT would not allow a curb cut on Highway 17 for school traffic.

Horvath said afterward that the school is optimistic the project will receive final reading on Sept. 23 after the commission reviews the traffic study. It requires the school to install an acceleration lane on Highway 17 at Old Plantation Drive for northbound traffic. It also requires the school add a right turn lane on Old Plantation for traffic headed south.

The school is seeking a $5.5 million loan from the federal Rural Development agency to buy the property and build the school. The board agreed this week to close on a loan for the property in advance of the Rural Development loan so it can secure the property next month. Horvath said the board is confident the federal loan will be approved.

The school expects to open at the new site in early 2016.

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