Verona School Board makes $3.4M land deal
It’s been clear for months that the Verona Area School District was looking to buy land for expansion.
The only question was where.
The first answer came Monday, as the district made a move to purchase 40 acres of land on the west side of the city for $3.4 million. The parcel is in an area long-planned for major commercial growth but just a few blocks of the massive Westridge subdivision, which sends children to Sugar Creek or Country View elementary schools further east.
It’s the southern end of the mostly dormant 62-acre West End retail/residential development, on land its owner, Vanta Commercial Properties, previously indicated would be suitable for condominiums.
The West End purchase has plenty of contingencies before it’s finalized, including a big question of road access and a referendum, but it’s not the only land purchase likely to be on the November ballot. VASD superintendent Dean Gorrell said he expects the district to have a second piece of land up for referendum, though he did not get into specifics on the potential property or cost.
The district had previously targeted Town of Verona properties north and south of the City of Verona but made no public mention of the West End. In recent months, district staff have noted that VASD’s elementary schools are close to capacity, with middle and high schools following right behind.
The contingencies on the purchase approved Monday ask both the district and Vanta, which last month changed its name from T. Wall Properties, to get the necessary zoning and city approvals and confirm the usability of the site for a potential school. Those would need to be done by August so the school board can put the referendum on the ballot in November.
“There’s quite a bit of work to do between now and (August),” Gorrell said.
Though he expects the contingencies to be met, Gorrell said there are still “lots of ways for this to not materialize,” adding that the district’s lawyer and Vanta’s lawyer spent a lot of time working out the specific wording to ensure the contingencies were acceptable to both sides.
The purchase comes after months of discussion that began last December to outline the district’s future as it continues its rapid growth and nears or surpasses capacity at its schools, especially at the elementary school level.
Earlier this year, the board established a Future Schools Committee, made up of parents, district staff and Verona business owners, to look at the options for expanding the district, and the group held its first meeting last week. Committee members will need to discuss the specific use of the site, Gorrell said, as part of a formal plan outlining possible changes to grade distributions or other restructures throughout the district.
The district has continued to grow by triple digits during the last few years, and administrators recognize that growth will likely continue for years to come. For the 2013-14 school year, alone, resident student enrollment increased by 151 students – 95 more than district officials expected.
Sugar Creek was above its capacity for this school year, based on a 2006 district study, as was Badger Ridge Middle School, with most of the other schools expected to grow next year as well as they approach their capacity numbers. That growth forced the school board earlier this year to cap open enrollment into the district at 30 students, well below the 85 in the current school year and even further from the 139 spots in 2011-12.
The new property is on the southern end of the West End and would run up against the Military Ridge State Trail to the south, the Hwy. 18-151 ramp to the east and the Erbach property to the west. Verona residents have been keeping an eye on that property for several years, since two separate developers invested several million dollars into the property and planned for a large big box-anchored shopping center.
However, plans changed multiple times and the economic downturn left the planned apartments as the only apparent viable investments on the site. Vanta has submitted a new concept for the property to the City of Verona and will discuss it at next month’s Plan Commission. Those plans could affect how the VASD site would be accessed.
That access, a major issue when Wall was attempting to develop the land in 2007, is one of the major contingencies that must be met in order for the deal to go through.
The property sits next to U.S. Hwy. 18-151, leaving no option for access from the west or south, and a high price tag would accompany any road that connects to Paoli Street to the east – including a likely Military Ridge State Trail overpass and uncertain approval from the state. Gorrell called that option “cost-prohibitive” and said administrators have no plans to connect to Paoli Street.
As part of the agreement, Vanta is required to prepare a certified survey map for approval from the city, which would likely require improvements to public access, utility service and infrastructure such as curb, gutter and sidewalks.
Vanta will also be required to enter a developer’s agreement for those improvements if necessary at a cost “acceptable” to the company, according to the deal. Other contingencies include rezoning the property (it’s currently zoned for condominiums), a stormwater pond agreement, an approved referendum in November and the district’s right to examine the property between now and Nov. 1 to ensure its suitability as a potential school site. That examination could include environmental inspections and traffic pattern and transportation studies.
Gorrell said Tuesday that district and city officials have agreed West Verona Avenue is equipped to handle the increased traffic that would come from a school, but the issue will be getting from the main street back to the school. That is something he expects to work out in the coming months.
Gorrell said nothing is imminent for this property if the deal is eventually closed. For him, it came down to not passing up what he saw as an important opportunity to invest in the district’s future.
“If you have an opportunity to buy land for the future, whether it’s five years from now or 25 years from now, (you do it),” he said. “There’s a lot of undeveloped land around Verona, but (that land) isn’t where any kids are at currently, and it’s not where kids are going to be.”