Town officials are reviewing a Wake County plan to build a new elementary school at one of the busier intersections in west Cary, an area where two nearby elementary schools are capped due to crowding.
The Wake County school system wants to rezone 18 acres at the intersection of O’Kelly Chapel and Yates Store roads so that it can open a $23 million elementary school there by 2017.
Though the school system hasn’t acquired the land, which is zoned for commercial and residential use, Wake has targeted the site for an elementary school since county voters passed an education facilities bond referendum in 2013.
The Cary Town Council recently held a public hearing on the rezoning request, and some residents expressed concerns that the school’s location on two heavily traveled roads might endanger drivers and students who walk to school.
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The area, known as Amberly, is already home to 184 townhomes and a UNC wellness center. The school system’s request would leave 5 acres on the property available for office or retail use.
“It’s going to be an unsafe area because it’s gonna be too (many) people coming and going,” said Stormy Van Hees, who said she recently bought a home nearby. “Traffic would be a nightmare. It would be an absolute nightmare.”
A traffic study recommends about a dozen upgrades to roads at and near the intersection to accommodate the school, from adding turn lanes and traffic signals to installing crosswalks.
But the school system isn’t sure yet how many of the improvements it can pay for on its own, according to Wake representatives.
“We recognize that the proposed school site and the nonresidential site will have an impact on traffic in the area,” wrote Glenda Toppe, a consultant working with the school system, in an email to the Cary council. “However, the Wake County Public School System is not in a position to offer as conditions of the rezoning all the improvements identified in the traffic report.”
Wake schools staff members hope to decide before Cary’s March 16 planning and zoning board meeting which of the recommended road improvements it can execute, according to Betty Parker, senior director of real estate services for the school system.
“We want to be good neighbors,” Parker told council members at the public hearing. “We’ve worked so hard” to find a school site.
The proposal is scheduled to go before the Cary Town Council for approval during its meeting on April 21, said Debra Grannan, a senior planner for the town.
Council members seem generally supportive of the project. Many of them have expressed deep concerns about the rate of residential development in west Cary – especially considering development’s effects on local schools.
“My only concern is seeing that laundry list of traffic improvements that I think the school system is going to have a very hard time trying to address,” Councilman Don Frantz said.
“We’d like to do whatever we can … to help,” he said. “We desperately need more schools.”
While nearby Alston Ridge Elementary will have its enrollment cap lifted next year, Mills Park elementary and middle schools will keep their caps, and the school system will add a cap to Panther Creek High.
The proposal is a good opportunity to build a school on a site that might otherwise become home to more dense residential development, said Councilwoman Jennifer Robinson.
“I understand the concerns of the people who live nearby. The reality is (the site) has limitations that prevent it from being a commercial site,” she said. “If it’s not an elementary school, it’s in all likelihood gonna be apartments.”
Robinson, who represents that area of town on the council, said the site’s surroundings aren’t much different from other existing schools such as Davis Drive Elementary.
“I don’t think (the plan) poses any greater concern than other streets where schools are located on throughout Wake County,” she said.
Councilman Ed Yerha said the school system has work to do before he can bless their project, which he hopes to do because of the situation with local schools.
“The traffic safety aspect is the most important thing here,” Yerha said. “If we’re gonna put kids in an unsafe environment, I’m gonna have trouble supporting it.”