Officials vote to abandon pursuit of Stamer's land

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:45

    Sparta - Nothing's really changed, Tom Morton, Sparta school superintendent, says. The township still needs a new high school and he still needs to find a place to build it. One thing has changed, though, which Morton readily admits to. He and the board of education won't be looking to build the proposed new $54 million school on a 102-acre property off Woodport Road near the center of town. Board members made sure of that when they abandoned their pursuit this week to condemn 60 acres of the property because of its environmentally protected streams and tributaries of the Wallkill River that would have prohibited construction on the land. Morton said the streams are protected by state Department of Environmental Protection regulations. He said the board made earlier judgments to purchase the land based on aerial photographs because representatives had not been permitted on the property until after condemnation proceedings had begun. "We have to go through the exact same procedure again," said Morton. "Had there not been DEP issues, we would have purchased that property by law. We walked away from that property because our engineers said there were streams that would have precluded us from building a school there." The property of longtime Sussex County resident Wendy Stamer had been the envy of board members since November following their exhaustive search for a piece of land to build the school on. And they were willing to go to great lengths to do so, even if it meant legal action to seize the coveted property behind the firehouse under "eminent domain," or in the best interests of the citizens of Sparta. "Obviously, the Stamers are delighted that the board has moved away from the property and are looking in another direction," said David Johnson, a Newton attorney who represented the Stamers. "We're glad they made it sooner rather than later." The school board had come under criticism from some Sparta council members and a number of residents for choosing to condemn the Stamer property in the presence of increasing numbers of new residential developments within the township's borders. "We've looked at all the properties," said Morton. "We're not looking to steal anyone's property. We are looking to buy someone's property at the fair market price. We don't have jurisdiction over where homes are built; how many are built; or how they're built." The board is now turning its attention back to three or four pieces of property that they had investigated earlier from an original list of about 20 to address the township's increasing student population. "What would you like us to do?" said Morton. "We need some property. We have no sellers. We have tried everything. We're not trying to point fingers or blame. That's not the board's intent at all. The message is we, as educators, have the responsibility for educating our children. We're just trying to take care of the kids that are here." 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 Stamer site would have housed 1,500 students beginning in September 2008, and allowed for reconfiguration of the existing 50-year-old facility into an elementary school. "Our enrollment issues aren't going to go away," said Morton. "They are here to stay. There's an explosion of kids at the high school and elementary schools. If we build a new high school, we have enough flexibility to take care of enrollment needs for the next 20 years." Morton said the board is eager to move ahead with its plans for a new high school so that the township can qualify for about $12 to15 million in state aid. School board president David 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. 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.