Excerpt of October 20, 2003 Town Council Meeting Minutes


Mayor Kevin Foy called the meeting to order at 7:00 p.m.


Council members present were Flicka Bateman, Pat Evans, Ed Harrison, Mark Kleinschmidt, Bill Strom, Dorothy Verkerk, and Jim Ward.


Council Member Edith Wiggins was absent, excused.


Staff members present were Town Manager Cal Horton, Assistant Town Managers Sonna Loewenthal and Florentine Miller, Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos, Stormwater Engineer Fred Royal, Planning Director Roger Waldon, Principal Planner Gene Poveromo, Engineering Director George Small, Senior Development Coordinator J. B. Culpepper, Principal Planner Gordon Sutherland, and Town Clerk Joyce Smith.


Item 3 - Concept Plan Review: Montessori School


Principal Planner Gene Poveromo noted a corrected to a notice to adjacent property owners, explaining that the existing floor area was 18,000 square feet rather than the 13,000 square feet written on the notification.  He stated that the proposed addition would be 19,000 square feet, rather than the 22,000 square feet on the notification.


Mr. Poveromo outlined the proposal to expand the existing elementary school on its 9.4-acre site between Ephesus Church and Old Durham-Chapel Hill Roads.  He outlined the proposal for middle school classrooms and a gymnasium expansion, and the plan for new ball fields and changes to stormwater management system.  Mr. Poveromo pointed out that the plan differed slightly from the one that the Community Design Commission had reviewed in October 2002.


John Papanikolas, Board President at the Montessori Community School, reviewed the school's history, its planning committee's goals, and its plan based on green technologies. The school's chosen architects and builders were leaders in design based on sustainable technologies, he said. Mr. Papanikolas outlined various project elements, including day lighting, a rainwater catchment system, a solar thermal system, and constructed wetlands.  School officials had met with their neighbors, he said, and the neighbors had provided valuable data regarding water runoff issues. 


Mr. Papanikolas said that School had met with Stormwater Engineer Fred Royal in November 2002 and made detailed plans, which they had presented to the neighbors in April 2003 and to the Town in June 2003.  He described the site's physical aspects and said that the Chapel Hill code had been insufficient for this site and had never worked to anyone's satisfaction.  Mr. Papanikolas pointed out that the School had spent nearly $30,000 over the years but had achieved little effect because the water run-off problems stem from multiple factors.  He outlined the School's proposal, which included seven state-of-the-art elements to preserve and enhance the environment.  Mr. Papanikolas summarized the proposed stormwater management plan and assured the Town that the School would not contribute to downstream drainage problems up to and including the100-year storm.


Montessori Community School Principal Barbara Crockett stated that the School’s educational ideals were reflected in every aspect of its expansion plans.  Students would obtain the solid foundation to become environmentally conscious and responsible citizens with a commitment to healthy outdoor and indoor living spaces created with sustainable building practices, she said.  Ms. Crockett explained that the School hoped to serve as a model campus by offering a seamless education to children from 2-14 where all space, both indoor and outdoor, is classroom space.  She described a campus that would foster love and respect for the natural world.  They would use and teach renewable technologies and offer children a myriad of experiences, Ms. Crockett said.


Past Montessori Community School Board President Elizabeth Pungello, the current chair of the Construction Committee, acknowledged that the school’s stormwater management system needed to be improved.  The School looks forward to working with its neighbors on finding a win-win situation that addresses the issue in a meaningful way, she said.


Montessori School parent Lisa Walter stated that environmentally friendly, green building practices and sustainable technologies were in accordance with community goals and school principles.  She proposed that collecting and reusing rainwater would reduce the effect of stormwater runoff and the use of potable water from the Town's water system.  It would also improve the environment and beautify the area, Ms. Walter said.  She stated that the School would directly contribute to the goals of the Million Solar Roofs program with its centralized solar heating system.  The School would serve as a model in renewable energy and would produce citizens who will continue the work throughout their lives, Ms. Walter said.


Future Montessori Community School middle school teacher Peter Piche explained that the proposed school would be "incredibly unique."  It would be based around principles of neighborhood stewardship and on Dr. Montessori's vision for adolescents, he said.


Diane McArthur, a Cross-County Communities Association member who lives on Colony Wood Drive, stated that there had been a long history of problems with the School, including inadequate water detention, flooding of neighborhood properties, and inadequate buffers.  These problems date back to 1983, she said, adding that they significantly worsened after the 1995-96 and 1999 expansions.  Ms. McArthur stated that the detention ponds had not controlled runoff, and that this had lead to severe flooding and soil erosion for adjacent property owners.   The ponds had not been well maintained, she said, noting that the Town had cited the School for a violation in August 2001 and that the northern pond was found to have a breach in 2002.


The ponds create a mosquito problem so bad that neighbors cannot be out in their yards from spring through summer, Ms. McArthur said.  She complained that some of the buffers had always been inadequate and that some had no plantings at all.  Ms. McArthur argued that tonight's plan was potentially devastating for homeowners.  She stated that it was the School's responsibility to repair current drainage, flooding issues and erosion of adjacent properties before proceeding with further expansion.


Newton Drive resident Debbie Andrews remarked that the Montessori project was not the only non-residential development that might negatively impact her neighborhood.  Ephesus Baptist Church had presented a concept plan which is moving through the Town's process, she said.  Ms. Andrews said that the 162% increase in the Montessori School's square footage would bring a dramatic increase in impervious surface. She requested a watershed analysis of the entire area and careful consideration of the consequences of further development.


Colony Woods Drive resident Denny Cook stated that a large, uncontrolled volume of water from the School had been eroding the property adjacent to it and that a ditch in that area was not adequate to handle the volume of water now running through it.  Mr. Cook explained that more than 20 acres of runoff was being directed to one 18-inch pipe, and that the School was responsible for nearly half of that runoff.  He said that the Town had refused to increase the size of the pipe because doing so would be too expensive and would transfer the problem downstream.


Mr. Cook noted that neighbors had petitioned the Town four times to let the water out faster, but had been told that doing so was not an option.  One option would be to hold the water back, he said, but noted that the School had not maintained its water-retention facilities. Mr. Cook proposed that the School was a candidate for a perpetual maintenance bond, as described in the "Stormwater Impact Statement" and the "Stormwater Management Planning Guidelines" on page four, section 2F of the Land Use Management Ordinance.  He also stated that a sewer line runs through one of the detention ponds, and expressed concern about leaking sewage washing onto his property and ultimately downstream.


Roper Lane resident Mike Willock told Council members that all of the drainage from the School washes through his property.  He expressed concern about water running into his house. Mr. Willock said that there had been no maintenance of the pond.  He displayed slides of the wetland which, he said, breeds snakes and mosquitoes, and asked Council members to authorize a watershed study.


Colony Woods Drive resident Judy Caiola stated that her backyard had continued to deteriorate from bogginess and erosion due to stormwater runoff from the School.  Water from the School’s detention pond was not adequately directed away, she said, adding that much of it runs around the pond, around a "once attempted" silt fence, and into a narrow and deteriorating buffer.  From there it erodes a deep trench under the School's property line fence and continues about six to eight feet into her property, Ms. Caiola said.  There, she said, it forms a dam to the natural runoff through her property and creates a mosquito pond.  Ms. Caiola added that stormwater had created 15-inch sinkholes on her property, and that she and family members had fallen into them.


Ms. Caiola displayed slides of water damage and explained that two inches of rain sends a rushing flow intro her yard.  Her air conditioning unit had been under water, she said, and water had risen up to about 1/3 of her crawl space.  Ms. Caiola asserted that the problem had grown worse after construction of the School.  She said that the School had assured her that remedies would be forthcoming, but that little had changed.  Ms. Caiola argued against any further expansion until these persistent problems have been addressed.


Colony Woods East resident Judy Betterton said that neither she nor neighbors with whom she had spoken had received any notice of the proposed School expansion.  The School's northern detention pond releases water directly into the small stream that travels through her neighborhood, she said, and she and her neighbors were experiencing flooding and drainage problems, which they attribute to the School's previous development.  Ms. Betterton predicted that the neighborhood would be in serious trouble if the developer were allowed to expand and direct additional stormwater their way.  She commented that the detention ponds on School property, which were supposed to release water within 30 hours, were always filled with stagnant water.  The ponds were an unacceptable predevelopment condition that needed to be fixed before anymore expansion is allowed, Ms. Betterton said.


Newton Drive resident Patricia Carstensen expressed concern about the School expanding its facilities while decreasing parking by 10%.  She stated that parking for special events already flowed out onto Pope Road.  Ms. Carstensen told Council members that she had a 50-foot buffer of woods behind her house only because she carefully negotiated for that during the last School expansion.  Nevertheless, she said, she is still bothered by noise and lights coming through that buffer.  Ms. Carstensen said that she did not want her neighbors to go through what she has.  They do not deserve anything less than 75-100 foot buffers around their properties, she said.


Colony Woods Drive resident Greg Owens explained that his property was adjacent to the concrete drain that carries the runoff from the Montessori School, Newton Drive, and the eastern side of Colony Woods Drive.  He has lived there for a year and a half, he said, adding that he was devastated when he learned that his home had a history of flooding problems since School development began in the early 1980s.  Mr. Owens noted that a February 2002 memo from the Town Manager had concluded that the Colony Woods drainage system was of obsolete design and that no expansion or improvements would be made to the current system.  He then played a videotape, taken on August 11, 2001, which showed heavy flooding across front yards and into a street.  Mr. Owens commented that rainfall on the day the video had been taken was only 2.1 inches.  The School's plans do not provide sufficient buffers, he said, and they provide no solution to existing drainage problems.


George Cianciolo said that he had been a Community Design Commission member when the Commission reviewed the School's concept plan a year ago.  The Commission had expressed concern about the project being too dense for the amount of land and the nature of the surrounding neighborhoods, he said.  Yet, the current plan actually increases the density over what the Commission had seen a year ago, Mr. Cianciolo pointed out.  He noted that the Commission had felt the proposed 20-foot buffers were inadequate, even though they were allowed by OI-4, because the property backs up to a residential area.  Mr. Cianciolo pointed out that the applicant had acknowledged that stormwater management was a serious issue.  The fact that the current ponds were not being maintained should be of concern moving forward, he said.  Mr. Cianciolo cautioned against the doubling of impervious surface and traffic. Traffic at peak hours on Pope Road should be looked at carefully, he said.


Westminster Drive resident Scott Radway stated that he had been on the Planning Board when they approved the site plan for the current Montessori Community School.  He is a Community Design Commission member, he said, so he too had reviewed the concept plan in October 2002.  Mr. Radway agreed with Mr. Cianciolo's comments about the Commission's concerns.  He said that he also shared many of the concerns of his friends who live near the development.  Mr. Radway argued that the current proposal was too intense for the site and that the development would become a problematic neighbor.  The existing development already had compromised the quality of life for those immediately south of the property, he said.  Mr. Radway argued that the proposed plan would intrude into the quality of life of those living on the western, northern and eastern sides of the main body of the site.  It would clear into the minimum 20-foot buffer in order to build the desired development, he said, and this would not protect neighbors from the noise and light of the proposed expansion.


Mr. Radway remarked that it was hard to see how a private school that had disturbed its site to the property line in many locations could satisfy the SUP requirement to maintain or enhance the value of contiguous property.  The concept plan being presented outlined a significant expansion of site disruption from the plan that the Community Design Commission saw, he said.  He noted that it would require Commission approval of buffers on virtually every property line.  Mr. Radway asked Council members to encourage the applicant to return to the Commission with its revised concept plan, and with a third concept plan that would show how the program could be constructed while providing a responsible buffer in excess of the minimum 20 feet.  The site might be too small, he said, adding that the solution would be to reduce the amount of proposed development or find a more suitable location.


Colony Woods resident Dale Coker, a Community Design Commission member who had participated in the October 2002 review of the School's concept plan, expressed concerns in two areas.  His first concern was over "existing site dams at risk of failure," and he urged Council members to consider the possibility of current shoddy construction when weighing the merits of the proposed design.  Mr. Coker also expressed concern over the "predevelopment runoff threshold."  He suggested that the Town Council look at the predevelopment acceptable threshold to which the School must calibrate before coming forward with a serious plan for development.


Council Member Strom asked the Manager and Attorney if the Council could ask the Mayor to appoint a committee to study this concept plan further.  Mr. Horton replied that the LUMO does permit that.  Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos pointed out that the Council would be obligated at some point to adopt a resolution transmitting its preliminary recommendation and comments to the applicant.


Mayor Foy ascertained from Mr. Horton and Mr. Karpinos that such a committee would consist of Council members.  


Council Member Bateman asked Council Member Strom to expand upon his proposal.  Council Member Strom explained that he was suggesting a committee that might include representatives from the School and the neighborhood.  But, if that's not possible, he said, the committee would talk with both parties as it had successfully done in similar circumstances.


Mayor Foy suggested thinking about the long term, noting that it would be to no one's advantage if the concept plan came back in its current condition.   He recommended communicating an understanding of what could be done early on.  Mayor Foy noted that the Council must formally transmit its recommendations to the applicant before a permit application is made.


Council Member Ward remarked that this application was tethered to several years of history that were not helping it.  It needs to be addressed head on, he said, and he asked Mr. Karpinos what discretion the Council had to address existing conditions.  Mr. Karpinos replied that the issue would come up when and if a development application were submitted. The general standard is that the applicant is obligated to address the issues with respect to its proposal and the impact of its proposal on existing conditions, Mr. Karpinos said.  He pointed out that the applicant was not obligated to solve a general problem in the community.


Council Member Ward said that a Mayor's committee might be able to delve into traffic, buffers and noise problems more deeply.  Mr. Horton stated that he would initiate a review to determine whether or not the property was in current compliance with its permit.  Mr. Karpinos remarked that existing violations must be addressed by whoever was responsible for them.


Mayor pro tem Evans pointed out that she had served on Mayor's committees for both Homestead Road and University Mall projects.   But this would be very different, she said, because neighbors and citizens had clearly articulated the problems and the applicant had heard them.


Mayor Foy pointed out that Council members cannot participate in discussions after an applicant applies for a permit until the application formally comes before the Council.  He noted that there were significant problems involved and that the Council would have serious reservations if they were seeing the application tonight.


Council Member Bateman expressed sympathy for the neighbors, but pointed out that the School had made a significant contribution to the community and a real difference for children who do not fit into a traditional school setting.  Council Member Bateman commended the School for its plan to work with early adolescents, whom she described as the most difficult group of kids.  She expressed hope that a compromise would be worked out and that the program would be accomplished in a way that does not impact the neighborhood any further than it has.  But the School certainly needs to correct past sins, Council Member Bateman said.


Mayor pro tem Evans encouraged the applicant to look at ways in which the School could be connected to the Colony Woods neighborhood, and recommended that they pursue pedestrian connections to Colony Woods Drive.




Mayor Foy commented that the Council would take time to address the serious problems now rather than waiting until the School comes for a permit.  The Committee would try and reach a conclusion about what might be acceptable from the Council's point of view, he said, adding that this was in the interest of both the School and neighborhood.


Council Member Strom added that the committee would engage with neighbors, the applicant, members of the Community Design Commission, staff, and others to arrive at a positive resolution.  Mr. Horton said that the staff would conduct a review at the property to determine whether or not it was in compliance with its existing permits.