Planning Commission Recommends Allowing Old School to Become Apartment Building
By DORIE SOUTHERN
Cape Charles Wave
July 27, 2012
The Cape Charles Planning Commission yesterday voted unanimously to recommend approval of the rezoning of the Old Cape Charles High School, adjoining parking lot, and basketball court from Open Space to R-1 residential.
The Planning Commission also voted 3-1 to recommend approval of a Conditional Use Permit to allow Echelon Resources, a private developer, to convert the school into a 17-unit apartment building located in an area of mostly single-family homes.
The votes were preceded by a public hearing, at which all the members of the public who spoke opposed the rezoning and conditional use.
Lenora Mitchell said the rezoning and the conditional use would “destroy the character of the neighborhood.” She noted that the basketball court next to the school is a community asset used across racial, age, ethnic and social lines. Under the terms of the contract signed by the Town, the basketball court will become a private parking lot for the apartment house.
John Peterman, an adjacent property owner and part-time resident, said, “We had no idea this would happen when we bought our property. We would not have bought it had we known.”
Wayne Creed, president of Old School Cape Charles, LLC, asked, “What happened that we are converting a public asset to a private asset? Why? Because we are in the Historic District we are eligible for government grants and loans and tax credits to improve the building, but those will be going to a private developer instead of the people of Cape Charles.”
Creed reminded the Planning Commission that the Historic District Review Board had rejected the proposal to convert the school into an apartment house as inappropriate.
Creed said the park has always been open space and the school has always been part of the park. “History shows that they were always together,” he said.
Michelle Macklin, a part-time resident and adjacent property owner, also spoke in opposition to the rezoning and conditional use permit.
Brian Harmon, a local teacher and property owner in the Historic District, said the school was an important anchor in the community. “You don’t want to destroy the school and its history in Cape Charles. The kids in Cape Charles need someplace to go. If you take away the school, there is no basketball court and all the other aspects of the park are compromised,” he said.
George Southern complained of a continuing failure by the Town to follow required procedures. Once again, no application for a conditional use permit had been made available before the meeting. And the application supplied at the meeting was made on a new form that appeared to have been designed specifically for the developer, who no longer was required to be the owner of the property.
Deborah Bender emphasized that the school had always been tied to the park. “In giving away the school we lose the parking lot for the playground, the basketball court, and the school. You are harming the residents of this town,” she said.
Bender noted that when she wanted to put in a swimming pool she had to provide drawings and plans. When she wanted to cut down a tree she had to provide pictures and state where a replacement tree would be planted. “These people have not supplied any of that,” she said.
Tim Krawczel cited the Code of Ethics for municipal employees, which requires that they serve the public interest and provide clear and accurate information to Council and commissions. He noted that Town employees and Council had met 9 or 10 times privately with the developer without public knowledge. “Are you getting clear, objective, and accurate information?” he asked the planning commissioners.
“Wouldn’t you want to know something about the company? Has a Dun and Bradstreet report been run?”
– Planning Commissioner Mike Strub
Chad Davis emphasized that “we’re all friends here,” but pointed out that the Planning Commission is required to follow the Comprehensive Plan passed by Town Council in 2009. The school property is an asset, and giving it up will result in a loss to the neighborhood. “The building, the basketball court, and the parking lot in front of the school are all Town assets,” he said.
During Planning Commission discussion preceding the votes, Commissioner Mike Strub related his encounter with Echelon Resources representative J. David McCormack, who gave a presentation of the firm’s plans July 21 at the Palace Theater. Strub said he asked McCormack for his business card and was told that his cards “were in his other wallet.” Strub then asked if McCormack was an employee of Echelon Resources, to which McCormack replied no – he owned a different company, but was a partner with Edwin Gaskin of Echelon Resources.
Strub said that despite his researching the Internet, he could find nothing on J. David McCormack’s association with Echelon Resources. He asked Town staff if Echelon had been vetted by the Town. “Wouldn’t you want to know something about the company?” he asked. Specifically, had a Dun and Bradstreet report had been run on the company?
Assistant Town Manager Bob Panek explained that Gaskin and McCormack are partners, but they create a separate company for each of their projects.
Strub also pointed out that a conditional use permit normally seeks the approval of adjacent neighbors, which had not been done in this instance.
Strub also was concerned about the Historic District Review Board’s decision that an apartment building in the school was not an appropriate use for the property. Town Manager Heather Arcos said that the Board wanted to see the building restored but that they did not agree with the use of the building as apartments. Panek said it was his sense that the Board felt that apartments might affect the nature of the park.
Commissioner Malcolm Heyward said he thought that a conditional use permit should be conditional on the basketball court being relocated.
The Commission voted 3 to 1, with Strub dissenting, to recommend approval by Town Council of a conditional use permit with an additional recommendation that the Town relocate the basketball court.