Southwest Wake News

Apex, Wake school system at odds over traffic fixes for new school

The aerial view of where Apex Friendship Middle School will be located. It will be built next to Apex Friendship High School, which opened in fall 2015.
The aerial view of where Apex Friendship Middle School will be located. It will be built next to Apex Friendship High School, which opened in fall 2015. TOWN OF APEX

Apex Friendship Middle School could be in jeopardy if Apex and Wake County Public Schools can’t resolve a dispute over two right-turn lanes.

The school system is objecting to the town’s requirement that it pay an additional $125,000 to construct turn lanes in order to get site-plan approval for the school. Board members and school facilities staff warned at a June 7 work session that the school’s opening might be delayed unless the conditions are dropped soon.

“Resolution needs to happen behind the scenes before July,” board member Bill Fletcher said at the work session. “And I understand there have been a lot of discussions, yet this persists. That’s concerning.”

Mayor Lance Olive announced Friday he had scheduled a special meeting June 28 so the Town Council could revisit the site plan that was approved at a March 15 quasi-judicial hearing. Earlier in the week, he disagreed with the implication from school staff and school board members that the council was unwilling to take action to resolve the disagreement.

“Whatever thoughts or concerns they have that we’re planning to slow-track this to our benefit, that’s not founded,” he said. “We’re very happy to move this forward quickly.”

He said he and town staff have been in frequent talks with school officials in recent weeks and were waiting for them to re-submit their plan for approval. Olive also wrote a blog post following the meeting to explain the town’s position.

In March, the council voted to approve the site plan with turn lanes at the intersections of Evans and Apex Barbecue roads and Humie-Olive and Richardson roads. The council removed a third road-improvement condition that had been proposed.

School system staff has recommended that the board not accept the conditions for the middle school, which will be built adjacent to Apex Friendship High School.

Until the June 28 meeting, the school board and the town are at an impasse – one made more tense by an upcoming deadline for the site plan’s approval if the school is to open by its scheduled date of August 2018.

Seeking compromise

Apex maintains that its planning ordinances require all developers, private contractors and public agencies alike, to manage the traffic impact of a given project. And in this case, town staff said, traffic data show those two lanes are required according to those ordinances.

Wake school officials said the same data show the requested improvements would not significantly improve congestion at those intersections.

“The traffic’s not going to improve, and we have such limited capital dollars that we have to stretch thinly,” board member Christine Kushner said. “Adding more to that infrastructure budget doesn’t seem like a choice we can make.”

The school system already has agreed to $625,000 of infrastructural improvements.

But Olive said maintaining the status quo, rather than a net improvement to traffic flow, is the town’s first priority. Congestion at these intersections has been evaluated using letter grades.

“It would be nice to say we’d go from a D to a C, but we don’t necessarily hold anyone to improving things,” Olive said. “We just want people to handle the impact they create. You can say you want to leave it better, but in many cases, if you leave it the same, it’s good enough.”

Apex Town Manager Drew Havens said the town is open to hearing the school system’s reasoning that the right-turn lanes aren’t necessary for maintaining the intersections’ grades, but that it is up to the system to prove it.

“We certainly can’t make any promises or assumptions about what would happen if this gets reheard,” Havens said. “But if they were to provide new facts, or even a new presentation of existing facts that guide the council in a different direction, we have the process in place to have a reconsideration.”

Both sides also fear a slippery slope of setting precedents. Apex doesn’t want to be perceived as favoring the school system above other developers, Olive said, while school board chairman Tom Benton said the $125,000 request is secondary to his concern that a concession from the school board would set an unsustainable precedent.

The school district has complained about the rising costs of off-site improvements required by towns to get approval for construction projects. Earlier this year, the school board threatened to delay construction of the new Bryan Road Elementary School in Garner until the town dropped requirements, such as adding curbs and gutters along the school’s road frontage.

Approaching deadline

School officials have indicated that work should have already begun on the school and that the beginning of August is a hard deadline for the site plan’s approval. A few board members went a step further, saying the risk of failing to meet that deadline, even with an August approval, means the board should begin considering other projects.

Before Olive announced the special meeting, Fletcher said he was concerned the town isn’t open to working with the school system.

“There are other towns that need a middle school, and I hope the town doesn’t make this a delayed construction,” said Fletcher, who represents parts of Wake County. “If it does, this rests squarely at the feet of the town.”

But Olive said Wednesday that according to North Carolina statute, it was the responsibility of the petitioner – the school system, in this case – to make the first move. Olive said the council has a three-week window in which to make a motion of its own volition to reconsider an earlier decision if it receives new information. The county could have submitted a new interpretation of its traffic data during that period, Olive said, but the town received no indication until recently that the school board was unwilling to proceed with the conditions as approved.

The school system contacted the town to formally request a new hearing either late Thursday or early Friday, Olive said.

“I won’t try to predict what will happen,” he said. “I know the council members were unanimous in their decision, and we thought through it fairly carefully the first time.”

Gargan: 919-460-2604; @hgargan