Planning board considers White Lake Road site, finds issues

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:49

    SPARTA-To understand where Ernest Hofer is coming from, take a look toward a middle row of chairs at the next township council or board of education meeting. The longtime resident of the Lake Mohawk section of the township can usually be found sitting quietly alongside his wife, drawing little attention during the sometimes contentious debates concerning a site to build a proposed high school in Sparta. "There's no question in my mind that we have to upgrade the educational system in town," said Hofer last week after he and other members of the planning board failed to recommend a site on White Lake Road for the new high school to be built. "I realize there's a need. The question is, how do we get a solution that is acceptable?" The township council had asked the planning board to evaluate the 60-acre tract and make recommendations before deciding whether or not to permit transfer of the property to the board of education for the proposed $65 million high school. The board of education wants the township-owned land for a new school that will ease the problem of dwindling classroom space in the face of an increasing student population. "Every decision one makes has to be done with a balancing act, including that of the good and that of the bad," said David Troast, the township planner for close to 10 years. "In this case, there's more bad than good for building a school." Troast said the planning board considered the impact any transfer of land might have on the township's master plan and open space as well as on land use, wastewater, traffic, the environment, and recreation. During his presentation before a packed public hearing in the Mohawk Avenue School, Troast said using the White Lake property for a high school site was not compatible with commerce in the township's Economic Development Zone. Necessary roadway improvements would be hampered by right-of-way issues, sight distances, and road alignments, worsening congestion and safety problems. He said a high school on the White Lake site would have a negative effect on the environment. Ground and surface water contamination posed a serious threat to the lake and to Sparta's public well. "The potential risk to the groundwater is very real," said Hofer, a chemical engineer who advises the planning board on environmental issues. "There are always designs that can address concerns, but at what risk?" Hofer agreed the aquifer would be susceptible to pollution if a high school were built on the property. Sparta is among 24 municipalities that get its drinking water from groundwater within township borders. Septic systems could be pumped up to a quarter-mile to protect groundwater, he said — but there are tradeoffs. Last year, he said, Sparta had high levels of uranium in its groundwater, which shut down seven wells and hampered water distribution. "Water is an essential component to life," said Hofer. "You can put in the most sophisticated treatment systems imaginable, but at what cost? That's something the school board should have addressed. The focus has been on land as opposed to technical issues." Hofer said he has confidence in the findings of the engineers who analyzeed the White Lake site for the board of education. But he is concerned they may not have had enough time to screen the situation adequately. Purchased with tax funds in 2001, the White Lake land was designated for open space or use as recreational fields. The school board is hoping to obtain 59.7 acres of this land through a swap with the township council. In return for the property, the township could receive land owned by the school district, including the current high school's recreational fields and the 30-acre Veterans Memorial Fields, or what is better known as the adjacent parking lot. Troast said he is not aware of any formal offer from the school board. According to Troast, no other vacant or underdeveloped property matches the White Lake property in usefulness, size, and location. Sparta education officials concede they exhaustively searched for a site to build the new high school, though any attempt so far has concluded unsuccessfully. The board of education had first envisioned the proposed new school on a 102-acre property off Woodport Road near the center of town. Board members abandoned their pursuit earlier this year to condemn 60 acres of the property after learning its environmentally protected streams and tributaries of the Wallkill River would prohibit construction on the land. Sparta school officials then turned their attention to a quarry on 500 acres off Limecrest Road, but the owner does not want to sell or donate the land. Troast leaves open as alternatives an addition to the existing high school or building on Veterans Memorial Field and the lands surrounding it. But Troast said he would not know for sure until he conducts an evaluation. He said he is legally prevented from performing any such study unless requested by the board of education, which he said it has yet to do. "The school board looked at 30 properties," said Troast. "They have not communicated the facts and shown us the properties as to why they were not good. At the 11th hour, they're now panicking. Wrong decisions shouldn't be followed up with wrong decisions."