Morton clarifies why expanding the high school is impossible

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:47

    SPARTA-They were all "well-meaning people," said Dr. Thomas Morton about the people who have called his office since last Thursday, when an article in this newspaper explained some of the reasons why officials cannot expand the current high school. According to Morton, most callers wanted to suggest ways in which the high school site could accommodate new construction despite existing environmental restrictions. Morton believes the map that accompanied the story did not properly illustrate the environmental constrains on the site. Although the map showed the wetlands that surround the school, it did not illustrate the zone beyond the sensitive areas that are also affected by environmental regulations. "We are very limited here," said Morton, unrolling a new map showing the "transition area," the space that must be left open between environmentally sensitive areas and any buildings. Contrary to the original report which said this buffer zone had to be 50 feet, Morton explained, state environmental regulations call for 150 feet. In addition, the superintendent said, Sparta High School is located in the newly designated Highlands Area, which limits the amount of construction that can be done to no more than 3 percent of the area. "I believe that if the people see this they will understand why we are looking for a new building," said Morton. "You can't build here." Morton's facts were confirmed by Liz Maziarz, spokesperson for the Highlands Council. "If you are in the Highlands, you can only cover 3 percent of the area with impervious buildings," said Maziarz, reaffirming Morton's statements. However, Maziarz doubled the size of the transition area from Morton's 150 feet to 300 feet. "According to the act," explained Maziarz "you need a 300 foot buffer between any construction and open water source." "I need the town to understand that we are not just going crazy because we want to get fancy with a new school. We're looking for another site because we can't build on this site," said the superintendent. For almost a year, school officials have been searching for site in which to build a new high school as a way to deal with the increase in student enrollment faced by the district. The plan for a new school came from a task force, comprised by residents, who were entrusted into looking for solutions to the overcrowding in the district's schools. Pressure to find a new site quickly has escalated because officials are trying to secure part of the multi-million dollar price tag of the new school from a fund that the state has set aside for that purpose. Many districts across the state have been applying for those grants, reducing the amount available. Despite all the delays, Morton confirmed that there is still a chance Sparta can acquire some of this grant money. "Because there has been a lot of misuse, (the state) just put a hold on any future approvals," said Morton. However, he acknowledged that the referendum to seek residents' approval for the project, which was planned for September, will now have to be delayed. "It looks as though the referendum day will be in December, but the board has not made that decision yet." Morton confirmed that the district is now looking at land on the former quarry on Houses Corner Road. According to Morton, the owner of the land is in the process of requesting a zone change from commercial to residential, so that he can develop the area. "We would like him to slice some of that land for us," said Morton. "We have had a number of meetings. We understand each other's position, but no final decision has been made." The school board is scheduled to hold a special meeting on Monday to unveil its plans for the land and see "how to move ahead on this."