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Council’s final special-use vote clears way for new HHS

The short of it is that the Hendersonville City Council passed on second reading the “findings of fact, conclusions of law and decision for the Hendersonville High School special use permit application” by a 3-2 vote on Thursday night.

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That vote means that all hurdles have been cleared for the construction of the new $53 million school to start next spring, with a possible completion date by August 2020.
The special use permit involved property on either side of Ninth Avenue between North Church Street and Oakland Street and at 1008 Fleming Street.
The long of it is that council members and representatives of Bearcat Nation couldn’t stop talking about their concerns over safety and traffic issues at Ninth Avenue, Oakland Street and U.S. 25, where the 225,000-square-foot school will rise on the former Boyd auto dealership site.
Council members Jerry Smith and Ron Stephens introduced into the record a memo – “our dissent” – about the issues they had with the plan for the school.
“We just wanted to have it on the record,” Smith said. “It was a 3-2 vote (in May to approve the rezoning and special use permit) so we ask that we have this included in the record that states our position in as succinct a way as possible.”
“Jerry has worked very hard on this and I agree 100 percent with what he wrote,” Stephens said.
Mayor Barbara Volk noted that their memo would be included as part of the minutes of the meeting.
Smith and Stephens shared the concerns of Tom Hill of Zirconia and Ken Fitch, who lives near HHS on Patton Street. Both addressed the council during public comment, each giving detailed reports about their concerns over traffic in the area. Hill came with maps and photographs. Fitch had a PowerPoint presentation of photos of students’ current treacherous patterns of crossing U.S. 25 at Ninth Avenue. “I worry about future student crossing” there and at Five Points, he said.
City attorney Sam Fritschner cautioned the council that “it would be denial of due process rights to consider any other written comments or oral comments at this meeting. You cannot consider that without reopening the hearing and starting the process over again.”
Smith asked, “Is it possible to reopen a hearing?”
Fritschner answered: “It’s always possible. But it would be something of a mess since you have already voted to do the deed. It would put us in some sort of limbo and I’m not sure how we would handle it.”
Volk called for a vote and council member Steve Caraker made the motion “to adopt the proposed findings of fact, conclusions of law and decision” that they approved on first reading on June 1. The motion carried – this time as then – with Volk, Caraker and council member Jeff Miller voting yes and Smith and Stephens voting no.
But the discussion wasn’t over. At the end of the meeting, after 15 more agenda items had been covered, the subject of the special-use-permit approval process for HHS came up once again. This time, Miller took issue with the Smith-Stephens memo and asked whether either of them had discussed their traffic and safety concerns with police and fire officials, as he had.
“My conclusions are based on what was said at the May 4 hearing” on the rezoning and special use permit, Smith said.
Miller countered: “I’m convinced that this will be a very safe place. I urge you to ask questions and have more time with people.”
Smith took issue with the quasi-judicial hearing process for the special use permit, which placed restrictions on council members’ ability to talk about the high school project with each other, with members of the public or anyone else before the scheduled hearing.
“The quasi-judicial process prevents private meetings with individuals,” Smith said. “I felt handcuffed most of the time. It’s not promoting justice and a great exchange of ideas.”
“You should be able to ask questions before the hearing,” he said. “For six months, people came up to me and I can’t talk about it.”
Smith asked Fritschner about the city of Charlotte’s use of a conditional zoning hearing, which would allow more leeway for council members. “You can talk to anyone you want, no swearing in,” Fritschner told the council.
As its final action of the night, council instructed Fritschner, city manager John Connet and Susan Frady, development assistance director, to look into a change from quasi-judicial hearings for special use permits to conditional zoning hearings. Connet said they will begin that effort soon and that he expects the research to take a few months.