The Wilson County School Board voted 3-2 Monday to buy a site for a new high school on the county's western side at the corner of North Greenhill Road and US 70/Lebanon Road that connects with the W. A. Wright Elementary property.
The split vote, culminating months of sometimes heated debates beginning last fall, was taken during a back-to-back work session and special-called board meeting Monday afternoon before the board's regular March meeting.
After Board Members Don Weathers and Wayne McNeese (Zones 3 and 1) voted no while Linda Armistead and Bill Robinson (Zones 4 and 2) voted yes to buy the 64½-acre site, Board Chair Larry Tomlinson (Zone 5) broke the tie by also voting yes before a standing-room-only crowd of concerned citizens.
Splitting MJHS opposed
Both Weathers and McNeese had other sites on Highway 109 that they preferred, and Weathers said he "couldn't vote for any location that would involve moving about 40 percent of the county's high school students" to different schools.
McNeese didn't explain his "no" vote before casting it, but earlier in the discussion he expressed his concern about taking a block of students out of Mt. Juliet High School.
"Why would we destroy the number one school in the state?" he asked.
However, the majority of board members apparently were persuaded by a presentation by Jason Morris of KBJM Engineering that gave the North Greenhill site the highest rating based on his company's study of a variety of factors "that kind of take the emotion out" of the selection process, he told the board.
During the 4 p.m. special meeting that followed the 3 p.m. work session, Director of Schools Dr. Donna Wright recommended selecting the North Greenhill site and Armistead promptly made a motion to accept her recommendation - seconded by Robinson.
'Best of five options'
Opening date: 2021?
Under the proposed plan, all of the students at the new high school would come from the existing Mt. Juliet High, and Armistead said that could be seen as a positive, because a whole group of students could remain together. However, the changes would not occur until the new school is completed.
Since the district's five-year plan calls for the new school to break ground in 2019 or 2020, and Hall said it takes about 24 months from the groundbreaking to the opening of a high school, the new school would not open until the fall of 2021 at the earliest.
Hall also pointed out that given the estimates of population growth over the next five years, the county could need a sixth high school by the time this one can be built. "Growth is going to continue to be a challenge," he said. "Our population is supposed to double by 2030."
That's just 15 years away.
Initially under consideration Monday afternoon were six possible sites
the North Greenhill property,
64 acres on Bender's Ferry Road,
65 acres off West Division Street,
90 acres on South Mt. Juliet Road,
284 acres on Gwynn and Double Log Cabin roads off North Highway 109,
and 78 acres at the northwest corner of Highways 109 and 70.
However, Weathers informed the board that the South Mt. Juliet Road property was being withdrawn because it's under contract to a buyer.
Several community members also spoke to the board favoring or opposing some of the sites before the vote was taken.
Gwynn Lane resident Mike Bradshaw said he opposed the Gwynn/Double Log Cabin site because of serious traffic issues. He pointed out that traffic on 109 is basically nonstop from morning to night.
Plus, "Gwynn Lane is one-lane and cars have to pull over to let each other pass," Bradshaw added. "Double Log Cabin is two lanes, but it's not much better."
'One site in flood plain'
Similarly, lifelong Laguardo resident Joe Williams opposed the Gwynn/Double Log Cabin site, warning that any construction might increase flooding there - and that part of the site is in a flood plain centered on "two blue-line streams," or small creeks that feed into larger waterways.
In fact, about half of the Gwynn/Double Log Cabin property is in a flood plain, Morris said in his presentation. But after the meeting, Weathers said flood plain areas can safely be used for access roads and athletic practice fields.
A high school on the spacious site would draw about equally from the county's three largest existing high schools, he added, and it has room to also build a middle and elementary school there in the future.
Residents oppose other sites
Dunedin Drive resident Doug Brown, who moved about five years ago to Mt. Juliet's Hickory Hills subdivision that adjoins the West Division site, said his main concern was what would happen if that site were chosen.
He pointed out that the only access currently available would be through Hickory Hills, since the site is landlocked by a railroad between it and West Division, and obtaining a railroad crossing might not be possible.
"It will be like trying to shove 300 head of cattle through a single gate," Brown said. "They will all get through, but it will take a very long time. This site is both ill-advised and possibly dangerous."
Brown apparently spoke the minds of a large part of the crowd attending the meeting because they applauded his comments. In fact, an overflow crowd from Hickory Hills and Willoughby Station attended the board's discussion of the West Division site last month, especially concerned about the prospect of teenage drivers commuting to and from a new high school through their subdivisions neighboring the proposed site.
Greenhill scores 84
In making her recommendation to buy the North Greenhill site instead, Wright told the citizens that she and the board had listened to their concerns but didn't have the North Greenhill property as an option until it was offered for purchase last month, the very day of the February board meeting.
In his presentation Monday afternoon, Morris said KBJM gave each property a score based on such factors as whether it had a railroad track or blue-line streams crossing it, if water and sewer were available, how close the site was to where students currently live, and whether it was the right size. The study also considered the costs of purchasing each parcel and preparing it to build on.
The higher the score, the more feasible the property, Morris explained. The scores were:
Bender's Ferry, 68 points;
West Division, 64;
North Greenhill, 84,
Gwynn/Double Log Cabin, 45
and the Highway 109/70 junction, 59.
Weathers, however, challenged some of the study's premises, asking why it didn't take into consideration the acreage available for additional school construction at Gwynn/Double Log Cabin and the fact it has two access roads, unlike some of the other sites.
McNeese commented that in fairness, it should be noted that the Highway 109/70 junction site, which he favored, really would only have one access road going onto 109 because the one onto 70 is too close to its westbound "on" ramp.
Deputy Director of Schools for Finance Mickey Hall also told the board about the possible rezoning that could be done to move students when a new school is built. He said if this is done, the newest school would have about 1,650 students; Wilson Central and Mt. Juliet would each have about 1,300; Lebanon, about 1,500; and Watertown, about 750.
These figures appeared to be based on the new school ending up on the property at North Greenhill. The rezoning would also shift rising middle school students coming from Tuckers Crossroads School from Lebanon to Watertown High School.
'Only Greenhill meets needs'
The last speaker before the board's vote, Steve Cotcher of Willoughby Station, told the board that he had seven children, all of whom had gone to school in Wilson County. He also said his profession is buying, selling, accessing and developing property.
"The only site you have that is developable as a high school site is the one on North Greenhill," Cotcher advised.
And in the end the board agreed, voting to buy that property - although Tomlinson did request Hall to ask the owner if he would sell the school system the one acre he has reserved to keep owning on Lebanon Road in addition to the other 64½ acres he has offered to sell.
Tomlinson's request came after Weathers expressed concern about what might be built on that single acre, commenting that he doesn't want something trashy going up in front a "a $50 million high school."
'Must sell lone acre, too?'
Weathers put his concern in the form of a motion to require acquisition of the lone acre, and McNeese seconded it so it could be discussed.
However, McNeese said that while he favored a different site, the board has made its final decision, and he doesn't want to get in the way of completing the purchase - so Weathers' motion failed by a 4-1 vote.
At McNeese's request, City Commissioner Justice then assured the board that Mt. Juliet's zoning regs for the area are quite strict and they prohibit "any tattoo parlors, beer joints or payday loan shops" going up on the reserved acre - "nothing fun for the high school students," he quipped.
Writer Connie Esh can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.