Crowd questions land purchase for new Phoenixville school

It was standing-room-only at Thursday night’s public hearing on the Phoenixville School Board’s plan to buy 29.5 acres off Hare’s Hill Road for $4 million and the possible home for a new elementary school.Evan Brandt — Digital First Media

PHOENIXVILLE >> Roughly 50 people packed into the Phoenixville School District’s meeting room Thursday night to hear about the plans for the $4 million purchase of nearly 30 acres off Hare’s Hill Road — and to question those plans.

The district has a “letter of intent” with the property owner for the purchase 29.5 acres bounded by route 724, Route 23 and Hare’s Hill Road in East Pikeland, school board President Lisa Longo said.

The district’s eventual plans for the property are to build a new elementary school due to the district’s continually rising enrollments.

Ten years ago, a Wal-Mart was proposed for the site and it is currently approved for 79 townhomes under a court decision, said Superintendent Alan Fegley.

The land, across from the Kimberton Meadows subdivision, is currently fallow and not used for any purpose.

Fegley said the district looked seriously at nine other properties, all of which were less desirable for a variety of reasons including not having water, sewer or electricity; being on unimproved roads; or even having unacceptably high purchase or renovation prices.

He said East Pikeland officials steered school officials toward this parcel, saying they would prefer it to be developed as a school, rather than more housing.

The township planning commission even adopted a letter endorsing the move, said Fegley.

Fegley said the district has been dealing with increasing enrollment for several years, and had to plan ahead for the possibility of this trend continuing.

Current forecasts show that beyond the next five years, the district could have 350 to 500 more students to educate in all grades.

“Heaven forbid we wait four years and suddenly find we need to build a new school and prices are higher and there is no land available,” said board member Eric Dougherty, chairman of the board’s finance committee, which has recommended moving forward with the purchase.

Should the anticipated enrollment surge not materialize, the district can always sell the property, said Fegley.

The district hopes to partially offset the purchase price and cost of building a new school by selling some of its other properties, including the old East Pikeland Elementary School, worth between $4 million and $6 million; the kindergarten center, estimated to be worth $4 million and a residential property on Hallowell Avenue, valued at $350,000.

Some arsenic has been identified in the soil on the site, a contaminant Fegley said the district has experience dealing with and is common on former agricultural sites. He said old photographs show an orchard located on the site.

The board is awaiting the results of a more extensive environmental review of the property but anticipates a vote to purchase the property to come next month, said Longo.

None of the 10 people who got up to ask questions or make formal comments spoke in favor of the idea. Some, such as Lisa Morrell, questioned if the purchase and new school would mean a tax increase.

Longo said more housing developments means more tax revenues, and economic development incentives that phase in increased tax revenues over 10 years are coming on line, meaning the purchase and construction “would not necessarily mean a tax increase.”

The board increased the tax rate for the coming school year by more than 3 percent in May.

The district’s current debt load is $138,910,000 Fegley wrote in an email to Digital First Media.

Another East Pikeland resident, Dan Sidlo, won applause when he said the school district “must learn to live within your means.”

He urged the district to take another look at the 61-acre Technical College High School property on Charlestown Road in Schuylkill Township.

But Fegley said that property is located on the wrong side of the district from where the growth is occurring; that the asking price was too high and added it is not a good road for school bus traffic.

Several residents, including John Mraz, said traffic on Route 724 is already terrible and questioned the wisdom of putting a school there and adding more school bus traffic to the road.

Mraz also accused the board of lacking transparency with the public since this is the first the public was made aware of the possible purchase.

Longo said the law allows the board to discuss potential real estate purchases behind closed doors in “executive session” because “if everyone knew we were looking at properties, the prices would rise because they figure the taxpayers will pay for it.”

“By being proactive, we are having great negotiations with the current land owner. By getting land early, we’re set for down the road,” said Fegley, who noted the original asking price was $4.5 million.

Longo said all the questions asked, and the answers, at the hearing would be posted on the district web site, and that additional questions and concerns are welcome.

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