Urbana City Schools Superintendent Charles Thiel told the school board the district may have to move forward with the building project without Urbana city approval.
School district and city of Urbana officials have been working through the process of getting a site plan approved for the elementary/middle school building that will be located on undeveloped land off Community Drive. The city’s approval process includes going through the Board of Zoning Appeals to zone the land, the city Planning Commission approving the site plan, and Urbana City Council and the Urbana school board approving a Memorandum of Understanding for the construction of utility infrastructure, street extensions and traffic-related improvements.
The school district wants to build an elementary/middle school building on the undeveloped land and knock down and rebuild the high school on its existing site. The funding for the $68 million project comes partially from school district residents and partially from the state.
The Urbana Planning Commission approved the preliminary site plan for the elementary/middle school building in November. That approval had a list of stipulations and recommendations, but it is the added one – the school district shall plan to extend Washington Avenue as a collector street to Summit Avenue, and connect it to Community Drive – that is causing a problem. That added stipulation may force the school district to declare its sovereign authority as a school district and forego the city’s requirements for development, Thiel said at the school board’s Tuesday meeting.
The hangup between the school district and city revolves around roadway access to the undeveloped land. City officials want the school district to extend Washington Avenue to Community Drive at its own expense.
For months the school district and city officials have been discussing two access points to the new school building as required by the city. The school district wants to extend Boyce Street as a second entrance for bus and staff traffic only; the main entrance would be from Community Drive. The city would prefer the second entrance be Washington Avenue, noting that Boyce Street is not designed for heavy traffic.
The problem is that extending Washington Avenue may be an expensive proposition. City officials have said they cannot afford to build that roadway extension, and school officials say a school district cannot use voter-approved funds for building construction to build a road that isn’t necessary for access to the school building.
Thiel said the district’s attorneys agree that the district cannot use bond money for school construction for a Washington Avenue extension. Those dollars can be used for infrastructure such as water and sewer extensions that serve the building, but not for something that isn’t required for the building itself. Funds to construct roadways are allowed, but only for access to the building.
“(Washington Avenue) is a total budget buster,” Thiel told the school board Tuesday. “We do not need to have Washington Avenue at this time. Adding that connection in does not give us two egress points from the school itself. It’s just truly for the development of the city. It appears with that being the statement, we cannot meet that condition as imposed by the planning commission.”
Thiel said the district may have to declare that it, as a sovereign entity, cannot meet all the city’s requirements, despite attempting to go through the city’s process “in good faith.”
City officials maintain the district cannot just declare it cannot abide by the city’s process without a court determination.
“We understand the district’s position in claiming to be an independent sovereign entity, but as we’ve discussed in several forums, while this status may entitle them to not be bound to all local zoning requirements, it does obligate them to make a reasonable attempt to obtain proper permits,” Urbana Director of Administration Kerry Brugger said. “Taking the position that they believe they’ve made a reasonable attempt by working the process only through submission of a preliminary site plan does not constitute a reasonable attempt. The issue of governmental immunity from zoning arises only after efforts to comply with municipal zoning have failed, and to date their efforts have not failed, as a final site plan is anticipated to be submitted early in 2016.”
Brugger added he is not clear on the district “invoking its sovereign rights,” “as that determination is not self-proclaimed, but rather it would need to be granted through a Court ruling.”
Court battle possible
If the school district declares it cannot follow the city’s process, the city could file an injunction in the courts to stop the construction. That could jeopardize the building project, Thiel said. The school district is required by federal law to have a substantial portion of the dollars for the project expended within five years of issuing bonds, Thiel said. Bonds for the project were issued in March.
The buildings are estimated to take two full years to build, in addition to the time it takes to design both structures. Thiel said he was not overly concerned about the timeline to get the buildings built, as some of the construction for each building will occur at the same time. But the timeline becomes an issue if a court battle delays the start of construction.
Thiel said the district’s attorneys are developing a response to the planning commission’s additional requirement regarding Washington Avenue. He hopes that response will be issued near the beginning of the year.
Casey S. Elliott may be reached at 937-652-1331 ex. 1772 or on Twitter @UDCElliott.