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NEW HHS IS A GO: City OKs rezoning, special use request

Looking north (toward Boyd property, rendering shows theater on left, main classroom building and gym on right. [ClarkNexsen architects] Looking north (toward Boyd property, rendering shows theater on left, main classroom building and gym on right. [ClarkNexsen architects]

The Hendersonville City Council on Friday afternoon voted 3-2 to approve a special use permit and the rezoning necessary for a new Hendersonville High School. Construction is expected to start next spring, with a target completion date of August 2020.

The decision came after a hectic 24 hours of meetings, starting with a quasi-judicial public hearing conducted by the city council on Thursday evening, followed by a meeting of the council early Friday morning, then a reconvened meeting of the Henderson County Commission at noon Friday and a continuation of the city council's meeting at 1:30 p.m.

At issue for the city council was the future of the historic Stillwell building. On Friday morning, council member Jerry Smith urged the addition of stipulations to the special use rezoning that would require the county to "preserve, maintain and use (the Stillwell building) as a public-school use."

The Henderson County Commission balked at that language, voting 5-0 on Friday to reject further conditions on the special use permit. Henderson School Board Chair Amy Lynn Holt, who was at that meeting, agreed with commissioners and said she was "uncomfortable with these terms."

Commission chair Michael Edney and Holt addressed the city council with their concerns on Friday afternoon. “The commission is totally committed, with the school board,” Edney said. “The school board owns the building. We don’t feel that written conditions are necessary.”
Edney said that the county will need to borrow money – the project is estimated to cost as much as $52 million – and that the lender will require the county, as part of the mortgage documents, to agree to “service, maintain and repair” all collateral used to guarantee the loan. The Stillwell building will be among that collateral.

Holt told the council that the school board “wants to go on with the new building. We have never discussed demolishing the building or using it as anything other than school use. It is our intention to keep that intact.”

Council member Jeff Miller said the motive behind their adding stipulations to the special use agreement was to ensure that the historic building was preserved. He asked Holt, “Are you (the school board) cool with it?” Holt said yes. “The school board supports the new project and maintaining Stillwell. We just wanted to protect Stillwell.”

Edney said the county “also has no issue with keeping Stillwell. You’ve got our word.” He reminded the council that on Aug. 17, commissioners voted 5-0 to “do whatever is necessary to bring Stillwell to preservation form and let the school board decide future use.” The county has budgeted $1 million per year for the next four years for the maintenance of the Stillwell building.

Edney also reminded the council that all the property involved in the new construction would be subject to city council review if any changes in plans were proposed because of its status as special use zoning.

Miller responded, “I do believe it’s (Stillwell) protected now. We’ve done our job. I feel comfortable that Stillwell will be preserved.”

The final vote on the proposal for the new construction – coming after two years of contentious debate – had Miller, Mayor Barbara Volk and Council member Steve Caraker in favor of rezoning and Smith and Ron Stephens opposed.

County Manager Steve Wyatt said construction plans would move forward right away to try to meet the original target opening date of August 2020. Construction is expected to take 24 months, according to architects Clark Nexsen. Wyatt said that there is a chance the opening would be pushed back to January 2021 because of the rezoning delays.

The new school will have 225,000 square feet of space and span 9th Avenue onto the former Boyd Automotive site on Asheville Highway. Because the new school will be built on the Boyd site, students will not be affected by the construction, according to Wyatt and Clark Nexsen officials. The city council has stipulated, as part of the rezoning agreement, that 9th Avenue cannot be closed before Jan. 1, 2018.

The design will feature a single, interior drop-off point for students, a fence around the property and improved traffic signals, traffic lanes and cross walks to ensure safety and improve traffic flow, Chad Roberson of Clark Nexsen told the city council Thursday night.

A new parking lot with 123 spaces will be built along Fassifern Court between Oakland and Fleming streets. Thursday night, Miller requested that speed bumps or traffic calming elements be added to that lot so that it would not be used as a “cut through” for drivers seeking quicker routes to the main roads around the school. Roberson said those would be added.

Late Friday, school board members reflected on the last two years’ efforts toward Friday’s final decision and what comes next.

“We will be working with the commission and deciding what to do with Stillwell,” board chair Holt said. “I would like classes for HHS in Stillwell. And we need to set priorities” for work on Stillwell, including replacing the fire escapes and repairing water, brick, roofing and HVAC issues. The first $1 million check from the county will be issued July 1. “We’ll have to see what can be done July to June 30 (2018). The students won’t be out of there for two years.”

“I hope the council doesn’t feel like their opinions didn’t matter,” she said. “I just didn’t want another layer of government that my board would have to go through for approval.”

Bill Orr, president of the HHS Alumni Association, said the alumni will be “moving from friendly opponents to monitors of the commission on HHS issues.”

School Board member Rick Wood said he is glad the back and forth among governmental bodies is over. “It’s been hard on the school board and on me personally,” he said. “I hope we can all learn from the process. It’s been a rocky process. I hope we learn to work more together for the common good of the students and taxpayers.”