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West Knox school site hits snag


Once again last week the Knox County Board of Education had an eventful discussion regarding the proposed new West Knox County high school.

Talk about possibly condemning four parcels of land to house the school dominated the board’s work session, Tuesday, Jan. 18.

The property pinpointed by Knox County Schools system staff is some 44 acres located east of Pellissippi Parkway with boundaries of Bob Gray Road, Dutchtown Road and Sanctuary Lane.

If a new school were built on that site, it would fall into the district of school board member Chuck James. He admits being surprised when he learned that the property being eyed consisted of four parcels of land (he was told it was one parcel) with owners who didn’t want to sell. And he was also not aware that some parcels contained occupied homes.

“I would have a hard time voting to condemn to kick someone off their property when we could broaden our search,” he said.

School board member Karen Carson, district five, commented, “Everybody was shocked to hear that negotiations that were supposedly going on weren’t.” She said she doesn’t relish the idea of a condemnation action.

“I wanna find (land) where we can work out a deal quickly. Everyone is committed to getting this school opened,” Carson said.

Board chairman Dr. Dan Murphy also said he was unaware of all of the issues surrounding the property. He stressed that the discussion was meant as a general talk about the process of condemnation. Other such information- gathering presentations were made during the meeting including one by Doug Whitted, KCS supervisor of new facilities and construction, who discussed various construction models used in the building of a new school.

The fact that landowners with 40-plus viable acres in West Knoxville may not want to sell is “not a big surprise,” Murphy said.

Murphy, who said that although other local government bodies routinely condemn land when necessary, added he was fairly certain that the School Board had never taken a condemnation action.

Russ Oaks, Knox County Schools spokesperson, was also not aware of condemnation actions in the board’s history.

Unfortunately, Murphy said, sometimes what’s best for the community requires the acquisition of property.

“Condemnation is a last resort,” he added. “But we’ve never had such a big challenge.”

Finding property suitable to build is one challenge; so too is trying to work with owners who do not want to sell. Property owners, a developer and an owner’s attorney addressed the board with their concerns.

Horace Hamilton Sr. told the board he has no intention of selling his 8-plus acres of land first purchased by his father in 1939. Zoned agriculture, the hilly land was once used for cattle, horses and pigs. Hamilton has spent most of his life on the property at 10304 Bob Gray Road and in his home across the street. He said he wants to hand the property down to his five children one day, “for them to do whatever they want to do with it.”

Hamilton is frustrated with how KCS and the school board have dealt with him and fellow property owners.

“I think the school just panicked, because they were supposed to have been looking (for land) since two thousand,” he said. “They made a mountain out of a mole hill.”

Attorney John King spoke in reference to Wallace B. McClure’s 13 acres. King questioned the Hop Bailey Co. appraisal that valued McClure’s land at $1,105,000 or $85,000 an acre. The total value of all 44-acres was appraised at $2,189,000.

The remaining two parcels, nearly 23 acres, is owned by members of the Evelyn Brown family. Brown, who is deceased, left her property to family members.

Their land is in the process of being sold to developer Roger Brown for a residential subdivision.

“We’re scheduled to close January thirty-first,” he said.

For the past six months or so, Brown said he’s spent thousands of dollars going through the process of having the land rezoned from agricultural to residential. He’s gone before the (Knox County) Municipal Planning Commission sharing engineering and environmental studies for the proposed 63-lot development. One small section is yet to be rezoned, he said, but is in process.

“I’ve just been trying to cross all my T’s and dot all my I’s,” Brown said. “Now I feel like the carpet’s been pulled out from under our feet.”

As recent as the Saturday before the school board workshop, Brown was in negotiations pre-selling lots for houses that will sell for $215,000 to $270,000. “Now, no one will negotiate with me,” he said. “That’s their duty to the community, to make a decision; I just hope they do it quickly rather than drag it along.” Everyday, he added, costs him more money.

Murphy said the board has asked Knox County Schools superintendent Dr. Charles Lindsey and his staff to continue looking for possible construction sites.

At the work session, members studied maps (see graphic) outlining a few of the parcels of land considered over the last four years or so of searching for suitable land. These properties, which included such Farragut landmarks as the McFee farm, were deemed not appropriate for a new school for various reasons. Oaks cited inadequate access, lack of utilities and poor topography as some of them.

Murphy and James were involved in meetings last week with seven architectural firms that have expressed interest in the school project. Lindsey, KCS staff and members of the board interviewed architects who were given one hour each to answer a standard set of questions. Lindsey will make a recommendation to the board at its meeting next Wednesday. The board has the final say and will vote to decide which firm will undertake the project.

James was encouraged when one firm said if it broke ground this July, it could complete construction by fall 2007. Another said to expect completion in fall 2008.

James agreed it was reasonable to expect a new school in fall 2008.

Murphy concurred.

“If things go the way I’d like them to go, we’ll see students in there by August of two thousand eight,” he said.

Regardless of when land is acquired, Murphy said, work toward the new high school will continue.

“The board feels that the high school issue is of paramount importance to this county,” he added. “We have to be aggressive and proactive.”

“After this one, we won’t be building another high school in Knox County for a long time,” James said. “We need to take our time and find the right location.”

James said he feels that the process toward a new school is already moving faster since Mayor Mike Ragsdale and Knox County Commission set aside $40 million toward the project.

“That’s when we could really take off,” he said.

 

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