Stuffed schools may halt projects

A new elementary school is needed to avoid running afoul of a 2003 ordinance

Staff WriterJune 23, 2006 

— Orange County leaders might have to halt residential construction if a 10th elementary school in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools district isn't open by August 2008.

All county and town governments and both school districts approved a law in 2003 that says development applications will be rejected if they will cause local schools to be over capacity.

Elementary schools can't be at more than 105 percent capacity, according to the Schools Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance. If the 10th school isn't open by the start of the 2007-08 school year, enrollment would be 10 students over the 105 percent cap, according to the county's student projections.

Local leaders said at a Community Leadership Council meeting Thursday that this wouldn't necessarily trigger a moratorium.

But if the school wasn't ready by the following year, the cap would be exceeded by 129 students, and local leaders would have a tough decision.

Officials would have to decide whether to "indulge the real estate development community over the needs of the public school system," Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton said.

"That's a public hearing I don't want to have," he added.

Projects that could be affected by a moratorium include the town-led condominium and retail projects on Chapel Hill parking Lot 5 and Wallace Deck, the redevelopment of the ArtsCenter shopping center in Carrboro, and Carolina Commons, a planned affordable housing project by UNC-Chapel Hill.

The county's board of commissioners discussed the dilemma at its meeting Thursday night.

Budget director Donna Dean-Coffey presented a memo that indicated the county did not have sufficient debt capacity to get the elementary school open before the 2009-10 school year.

"You're talking about really creating chaos in the county capital budget," County Manager John Link said.

Commissioners Barry Jacobs and Stephen Halkiotis asked what the county's options are, short of abolishing SAPFO, to avoid a moratorium on residential development projects.

County Attorney Geoff Gledhill said the entities involved with SAPFO -- Orange County, Chapel Hill, Carrboro and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools, in this case -- could agree not to take into consideration elementary school capacity when giving development projects the go-ahead.

When SAPFO was put into place, it was done on the high school level for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro district. Capacity is still being waived for the middle school level in the Orange County Schools district. That school system is over capacity until Gravelly Hill Middle School opens in Efland.

The elementary school will be built on the site of an old dairy farm near Old N.C. 86 and Eubanks Road.

(Staff writer Cheryl Johnston Sadgrove contributed to this report.)

Staff writer Matt Dees can be reached at 932-8760 or matt.dees@newsobserver.com.

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