- Story Ideas
- Send Corrections
EAST PIKELAND — Following a “surprise” rejection of the renovations to East Pikeland Elementary last month by the township’s zoning hearing board, the Phoenixville Area School District will appeal the decision.
The school board voted unanimously Thursday to appeal on the renovation and expansion of the school, which the district believes will see an additional 200 to 400 students “over the next few years,” according to the report given by the zoning hearing board.
However, the zoning hearing board believed the project proposed by the district and its architects is a “mismatch between the character of the neighborhood and the character of the proposal.”
“The zoning hearing board is sympathetic to the needs of the school students and is disappointed that a plan was not presented that would more equitably balance the needs of the students and the rights of the local residents,” the zoning hearing board’s decision read.
When The Mercury attempted to speak with a representative for the zoning hearing board, East Pikeland’s township manager, Kim Moretti, said the zoning hearing board’s solicitor “advised that the decision should speak for itself.”
Alan Fegley, Phoenixville Area School District’s superintendent, said the decision to reject the project wasn’t something he or anyone he worked with suspected.
“I’ve been in a number of meetings with the planning board and the (township) supervisors, so I would present that we were working with them,” Fegley said at a Nov. 8 school board workshop. “That’s where the surprise came.”
“Just so we’re clear: the process, since you’ve been here, Dr. Fegley, has been to work with the township to come to a mutual understanding of what (the East Pikeland Elementary) project was going to look like,” said Kenneth Butera, a school board member at the workshop.
Hearings for the school project have stretched out for 17 months and the district has already spent $1.5 million in architects’ fees and legal fees. That amount of money being spent on a project like East Pikeland, which has been spread out for so long, is “normal for a project like this,” said Stan Johnson, the district’s executive director of operations.
Jennifer Clemens, an East Pikeland resident who said she went to most, if not all, of the meetings between the school board and the township, said she thought the school district was working with the township on the project.
“Through the rumblings I’ve heard about the school district plowing ahead with this without regard to the township, I see no (evidence) to that whatsoever,” she said.
Calls to numbers listed for those on the East Pikeland Board of Supervisors were unanswered this weekend.
East Pikeland Elementary stands at 1191 Hares Hill Road in an R-2 zoning district in the township. As such, a school is permitted but only as a special exception. Because of that, any modifications to the site must be approved.
The school district sought relief for the township’s height limit, impervious coverage limit and other issues like steep slope issues.
The expansion project called for the need to get a height variance for a requested 48.5 feet over the maximum allowed height of 35 feet. Additionally, the amount of impervious ground cover allowed in the R-2 zoning district is 20 percent, though the school was already approved for and currently covers 23 percent of its site. The project would expand that to 41 percent.
The zoning decision called the scope of the project “breathtaking.”
“What is presented as absolutely necessary to fulfill the immediate needs of the school district is a complex structure that is, according to the zoning ordinance, much too dense and intense for the zoning district,” the zoning hearing board’s decision report said. “This might be tolerable if it was a temporary inconvenience to the neighborhood; however, it is highly likely that the proposed expansion, once constructed at a great expense to the taxpayers, will remain in place and in use for one purpose or another for the forseeable future.”
The zoning hearing board was concerned with a traffic impact from the school that will “likely last for decades” and the possibility of the repurposing of the school’s classrooms for “older students at a later date, if necessary, even though it might not be desirable.”
“In short, the project is the quintessential ‘10 pounds in a five-pound bag’ that is often presented to zoning hearing boards,” the decision report continued. “In a commercial zone, such a problem might be amenable to conditions that would mitigate such impacts.”
The zoning hearing board said there is “no evidence presented that (the East Pikeland Elementary site) could not be redeveloped for a fully-conforming use.”
“The only ‘hardship’ presented is that the school district’s architects have designed a structure that is too large for the property that the school district owns.”
All work and preparations at East Pikeland Elementary for an expansion have been “put on hold,” Fegley said.
“This will probably put a two- to three-year, if not more, hold on where we are going with East Pikeland,” he told the school board Nov. 8.
With the rejection, Fegley said he approached the East Pikeland supervisors for a waiver to put trailers at the East Pikeland site for additional classroom space. The supervisors approved.
Butera asked Nov. 8 whether a delay in the renovation and expansion would increase costs to the project, to which Johnson replied, “The answer to that is a definite yes.”
Because of the recession, construction costs were lower but now are “accelerating” due to rising material and labor costs.
“The prices will be higher moving forward,” Johnson said.
Fegley thanked the school community and state representatives Warren Kampf and Duane Milne for their support in the project and he also thanked the Department of Environmental Protection.
“If we had the zoning board’s approval, we would have had the various approvals from (the Department of Environmental Protection) within about a month and a half,” he said. “They were right on track to do that. But at this time, it puts a stop to all that work because, again, all that work costs significant dollars.”