Officials in school land dispute dig in for fight

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:18

    SPARTA-Sparta Board of Education officials insist they have only just blinked, that they still have their sights set on purchasing part of a 203-acre tract off Woodport Road, but the attorney for the property's owner continues to warn they better look elsewhere to build a new high school. David Johnson, who represents Wendy Stamer, owner of the coveted property behind the new firehouse that stretches up to Route 15, criticized the school board for threatening to initiate condemnation proceedings to seize at least 60 acres of her land, which officials believe are needed to construct a proposed $53.9 million high school to address the township's increasing student population. "Under no circumstances do the Stamers want to negotiate," said Johnson. "They've consistently resisted offers to develop it. The proof is in the pudding." Officials from both boards of education and planning met recently to discuss the Stamer property. Johnson said that contrary to the board's findings, only 35-40 acres of the Stamer property are suitable for building a school. "It's outrageous," said Johnson, alluding to aerial photos used by the school board in presentations to make its case for purchasing the Stamer land. "They haven't even set foot on the property. The property can't support a school." Sparta officials project that this year's high school class of 240 senior students will be replaced by 370 current eighth-graders. A new high school at the site would house 1,500 students beginning in September 2008. Superintendent Thomas Morton said "his heart goes out" to the Stamers, but the school board is faced with a "predicament" when it considers the township's overcrowding dilemma. "Our job is to serve the children; we're not surrendering," he said. "I believe fully we have to build a facility on this land." Morton said the board wants its engineers and architects to take a further look at the land. "The property can't support a school," said Johnson. "It's clear that they (board of education) haven't carefully done their homework and it's clear that the Stamer property shouldn't be under consideration." Wendy Stamer has said she wants the property to be preserved and eventually dedicated as a public nature sanctuary. She said a stream that flows across her land from Lake Saginaw into the Wallkill River could become contaminated if the site is developed. According to the landowner, the acreage is also home to wildlife including bears, coyotes, deer, wild turkeys, owls, and woodpeckers. The controversy appears to be spreading to other governmental areas. Sparta Mayor Scott Seelagy said the land has been designated for open space and that the "property is a major part of our planning efforts." He said a majority of the township counsel objects to the condemnation process that the school board has threatened and questioned its "lack of vision, foresight, and planning." Seelagy called the school board's actions a "rush to judgment" and a "violation of the master plan." "The council was never consulted," said Seelagy, at a recent township council meeting. "They (school board) shut us out on this ... and undercut our plans for this town." David Slavin, school board president, said he isn't surprised by the turn of events. "Nothing's changed," he said. "Right now, our focus is on the Stamer property. We have to do what we have to do." The board is eager to move ahead with its plans for a new high school so that the township can qualify for about $12-15 million in state aid. Slavin said the board has until July to finalize plans to secure funding with the state. The cost for building a new high school will then be put before voters in a September referendum. "We don't believe the taxpayers of Sparta will ever approve the taking of the Stamer property and the spending of the money the school board wants to spend to take the property," said Johnson. Last year, Sparta voters turned down a referendum that called for construction of a new elementary school. In June, a committee appointed by the board recommended plans for a new high school.