Potential Whistler school site sparks controversy | SteamboatToday.com

Potential Whistler school site sparks controversy

One of the sites the Steamboat School District has proposed for a new school would be on property it owns in the Whistler Park neighborhood. (John F. Russell photo)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — It isn’t the first time the Steamboat Springs School District has explored building a school on the 9.2 acres of property they own in the Whistler neighborhood. And, it isn’t the first time the plan has faced opposition.

A surge of concern erupted last week over the prospect the neighborhood would lose its park.

Unused since the district bought the 9.2 acres next to Whistler Park in 1980, the entire area has long been enjoyed as a dog park and rugby field, among other recreational uses. The district has a memorandum of understanding with Steamboat Digs Dogs for the off-leash area.

But, the actual “Whistler Park” portion on the southeast corner of the property — the 5.6 acres that includes the playground and a small parking area — is owned by the city.

When Steamboat Superintendent Brad Meeks met with city Parks and Recreation Commission members to explore options for the area if they do decide to build a school, rumors began circulating that the city’s portion was being considered for a sale or a swap.

“We are not taking the park,” said Steamboat Springs Board of Education President Joey Andrew.

The city responded with a news release.

“City parks and recreation is a valuable commodity with our citizens,” City Manager Gary Suiter said in the release. “While we’ll listen to any and all ideas and inquiries, the community should understand that no city park can be sold or traded without a vote of our citizens. The community should know that if the city were ever to consider making a change to a park in the future, we would fully engage our citizens before any decision is made to move forward in any manner.”

However, the city’s retained ownership of the actual Whistler Park piece isn’t likely to change the minds of many who remain opposed to the construction of a new school in the neighborhood.

The decision about where a new school will be built won’t be made by the school board until more information is gathered, Meeks and Andrews emphasized.

The analysis, which includes street configuration, traffic, utility needs and environmental impacts, is underway and applies to both the Whistler site and the 35 acres the district owns next to Steamboat II, Andrew said. The board plans to add an additional 35 acres to the west Steamboat site with the purchase of neighboring property, slated for finalization this summer.

In addition to the loss of green space, Whistler opponents primarily cite traffic and environmental concerns. And, as several people asked at the March 4 board of education meeting, if Steamboat’s growth is happening to the west, then why not build the new school to the west?

Steamboat Springs School District is exploring the possibility of building a new school on 9.2 acres of property near Whistler Park that it has owned since 1980 (pictured in yellow). The district also is exploring the possibility of purchasing additional land owned by Mount Werner Water (pictured in red) in an effort to mitigate traffic and open space concerns from nearby residents. The city of Steamboat Springs owns the 5.6-acre Whistler Park (pictured in blue).

Steamboat II vs. Whistler

The debate also focuses on demographics. Are there enough students around the Whistler neighborhood to justify building a school?

According to the district, yes.

According to a group of neighbors, no.

A new demographics report will be released around mid-April, Meeks said, and will be key to the decision-making process. He said the district plans to make a decision between the Whistler and the Steamboat II sites by the end of the school year. Ballot language must be finalized by the end of August to get a bond issue on the November ballot.

And, the district knows it must have community support. In 2015, a $92 million bond issue, which would have made upgrades to existing schools and build a new school, failed by a wide margin.

The need for a new school is an urgent one, according to Meeks, with all the schools currently at or over capacity. From 2006 to 2016, enrollment grew by 24 percent. There are currently 2,642 students in the district, with over 3,000 projected by 2031.

The new school, which would be built to serve about 500 students, would either be a pre-K through eighth-grade or fifth- through eighth-grade campus.

Carol Kemp, who lives at the intersection of Whistler Road and Meadow Lane, has done a detailed analysis of the most recent demographics report. Her report shows, based on a division of six zones and splitting the downtown zone in half, about 250 more students live closer to the Steamboat II site than the Whistler site. She also argues trends in recent years show a significant increase in the number of students living closer to Steamboat II.

“I encourage everyone to look at the site selection criteria facts when considering whether the Steamboat II site or the Whistler site is the best location to build new school facilities,” Kemp said. “This decision will impact our students, parents, community members, property owners, environment, wildlife and the health or our ski tourism industry for years to come.”

But, Andrew points to the existing need illustrated by the approximate 722 students around the Whistler site. Meeks and Andrew also point to the overwhelming response from their forums, focus groups and surveys on the desire for “neighborhood schools,” especially at the elementary level.

A school in the Whistler neighborhood makes sense, said Cristina Magill, who lives there and has three children in Steamboat schools. She participated in the Community Committee for Education around the 2015 bond.

“It came up again and again that Whistler was a logical place for the next elementary school,” Magill said. “We have the children to fill it.”

Meeks points to the four buses, each carrying between 40 and 60 students, that transport kids to and from the Whistler neighborhood every day. Eliminating those buses would actually help traffic flow, Meeks said. He also notes the new Trailside Village and Yampa Valley Housing Authority’s housing units planned near the Walgreens.

But, Kemp says the housing developments planned to the west of downtown dwarf those numbers.

Kemp also points to the need right now for more practice fields and facilities for high school athletics  — and the vast Steamboat II acreage.

More study needed

But, it’s not necessarily a matter of either or, Meeks said at the March 4 meeting.

If the number of students continue to grow, he said they will likely need to build more schools — potentially at the 12-acre West Steamboat Neighborhoods site and the Steamboat II site.

Meeks said it’s more a matter of which happens first. He added it makes more sense to first build where the population is currently more concentrated and then build out where the population is expanding.

At this time, said Andrew, Steamboat II simply does not have the infrastructure — especially water and electric —  to handle the needs of a school. Whistler does.

Another big unknown is the district’s possible acquisition of property currently owned by Mount Werner Water District, which is located at the northwestern corner of the district’s Whistler property.

Jessica Berg, who lives on Park Court at the edge of the district’s property, has concerns about the environmental impact.

“It’s like a bird sanctuary,” she said.

She regularly sees elk, moose and an occasional bear. Berg is concerned about the ecologically sensitive land and water supply around Walton Creek, which runs on western side of the property.

But, Berg has another big concern — losing her house. She said she’s already sought the opinion of a civil engineer and has been told, in order for Park Court to become the access route to U.S. Highway 40, it can’t be wide enough without taking her home and the house across the street.

Meeks and Andrew said they aren’t aware at this time of the need to tear down any homes.

Meeks and Andrew say they are taking a very collaborative approach to working with the city and other stakeholders as they explore all options.

But, the opposition is organized.

A petition on change.org was started two weeks ago and has over 550 signatures. Authored by Hiawatha Court resident Valerie Jarvis, it states, “There is a huge opposition to this proposal based on traffic, safety, lack of community support, environmental issues, loss of wildlife habitat and migration corridors, preservation of water shed, loss of the only community park on the south side of Steamboat and demographics that show this is the wrong location to build a new school.”

At this point, it is too soon in the process to have the answers to many unanswered questions and concerns, said Meeks.

The district has owned the property since 1980 and long planned to build a school on the site, Andrew points out. The board bought the property with that intention, and it hasn’t ever changed.

The Whistler site is a “jewel,” Andrew acknowledges. “But, it’s the community’s jewel.”

Community meetings will be held in both the Whistler and Steamboat II neighborhoods in the near future.

To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @KariHarden.

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