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2015-05-06 / News

Overcrowding, townhouses spark debate in Midlothian

By Jim McConnell
STAFF WRITER

A group of local parents has expressed concern about a proposed townhouse development in the village of Midlothian, claiming that the project will only exacerbate long-standing capacity issues at J.B. Watkins Elementary.

Developer HHHunt is seeking approval from the county to build 80 upscale townhouses between Charter Colony Parkway and LeGordon Road, south of Midlothian Turnpike.

The Planning Commission is expected to hear the case at its May 19 meeting.

Reuben Waller, Midlothian’s planning commissioner, held a community meeting recently to inform the public about the planned development and obtain citizen input.

Representatives from Friends of Greenspring, a coalition of parents and community members formed to address what they consider Chesterfield’s inadequate school facilities, spoke at the meeting and noted that Watkins Elementary is already struggling to accommodate its current students.

“That’s really our only issue with [the project] – it’s just going to add to the overcrowding,” said Jarica Davis, a coalition member and Midlothian resident.

As of Sept. 2013, according to a document obtained from Chesterfield County Public Schools, Watkins Elementary was easily the county’s most overcrowded school. With 1,002 students in a building intended to house 749, it operated at 134 percent of its functional capacity.

That situation is only getting worse as the local housing market continues to strengthen. Many new homes have been built in Hallsley and other Midlothian subdivisions over the past year, drawing new families to the area and funneling additional students into Watkins.

During a School Board work session last December, Andy Hawkins, the school system’s former assistant superintendent for finance, told the board that Watkins’ enrollment is projected to reach 144 percent of functional capacity by 2020.

Davis suggested that when the state Route 288 extension was completed in 2004, county leaders “knew growth was coming. They just haven’t kept up.”

Other than building a new school, which would take years, there doesn’t appear to be a solution to the overcrowding problem.

School system policy calls for a series of steps to be taken to relieve overcrowding anytime a school exceeds 120 percent of its capacity. According to that policy, before the county spends millions of taxpayer dollars to build a new facility, the school system must first exhaust its redistricting options.

But the elementary schools closest to Watkins (Evergreen and Swift Creek) are also operating above their functional capacity, and previous attempts to redistrict county schools have met with significant resistance from parents.

“We’ve been fortunate in the past to build our way out of overcrowding, but that doesn’t seem to be an option at this point,” Waller said. “If we can professionally redraw [school zone] lines and bring balance to the county, wouldn’t that be a better option than spending $30 million to build a new school?”

Recognizing that School Board members are unlikely to redistrict Watkins during an election year, the Friends of Greenspring coalition wants a new Midlothian elementary school built sooner than later.

In February, Hawkins introduced a plan that would have moved construction of that school from 2021 to 2017, but it was quickly rejected by the School Board out of concern that accelerating the Midlothian school would require the delay of other school revitalization projects approved by voters in November 2013.

If a new elementary school can’t be delivered promptly within current funding constraints, the Friends of Greenspring coalition supports increasing local property taxes.

“That message is not one that’s going to be well-received on a county level,” said Leslie Haley, who is running to represent Midlothian on the Board of Supervisors.

Haley also questioned whether it’s sound policy to deny a residential development that satisfies all other county requirements because of a school overcrowding issue that has existed for many years.

“We know we have a problem,” she said. “The question is how do we resolve it with the growth that is occurring.”

There’s disagreement about how much the new Midlothian townhouses, which are expected to be priced at $280,000 and up, will negatively impact the overcrowding problem at Watkins.

In January 2011, the Board of Supervisors approved a zoning amendment to remove age restrictions on 80 condominiums planned for the Westwood Village community at Charter Colony.

At that time, the school system projected that the 80 new units would generate 17 new students at Watkins, which was already operating at 133 percent of its functional capacity.

HHHunt contends that the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors should also approve its 80 upscale townhouses because the development will produce a similar number of new Watkins students.

“One might say this is not quite apples to apples, but it’s close,” Waller said.

The Friends of Greenspring coalition disagrees with the developer’s analysis and argues that multilevel townhouses will attract more young families with school-age children than the Westwood Village condominiums.

Waller, however, sees the project as “a major asset” for Midlothian that will attract affluent residents to support commercial development in the village.

“We have to weigh that against the school issues,” he added.

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