Urbana schools buy $925K property after problems with old site

Staying with the story

The Springfield News-Sun has closely followed plans by the Urbana City School District to build new schools, including stories digging into a dispute between city and school district leaders about road construction, as well as recent concerns about a proposed construction site’s proximity to a landfill.

By the numbers:

$925,000 — Cost of new property

70 acres — Approximate size of new property

180,000 square feet — Approximate size of proposed school

$68 million school — Total cost of new schools construction project

Urbana City Schools will spend $925,000 to buy about 70 acres of land for a new pre-kindergarten through eighth grade building after several problems plagued its original site.

The new school is part of a $68 million school construction project. About $36 million of the cost will be covered by the state and voters approved a bond in November 2014 to cover the rest.

The district had initially planned to build the new primary school near the Champaign Family YMCA on Community Drive, land it bought more than 10 years ago for the project.

But the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency informed district leaders that the proposed school could be too close to an old city landfill and questioned if methane gas or other contamination could reach the site.

So now the Urbana district plans to build on a property on the East side of U.S. 68 between Vintage Drive-thru and Campground Road.

The money for the new property will be paid for out cash reserves, the district’s savings account, Urbana Superintendent Charles Thiel said. District officials had been looking at the property over the past year, he said, but initially held off while they tried to resolve concerns at the site on Community Drive.

“The property had been up for sale and listed and we were running into roadblocks with the city in regards for their expectations for the infrastructure, so we had kicked around the idea of pursuing that piece of property,” Thiel said.

Construction on the new school could begin as early as spring 2017 and will take about 24 months, according to information from the district. In the meantime, work will instead begin on a new high school building due to the delay caused by the problems at the property near the landfill.

One of the benefits of the new site is that it will be large enough for future development, Thiel said, which could include parking, athletic fields and additional facilities if necessary.

In addition to the landfill concerns, the city of Urbana and the district disputed the need for and cost of new roads and utilities at the Community Drive site.

But city planners said they had warned the school district about roadblocks at that site since planning began.

“There were some discussions during that process that some of these issues that surfaced were out there — the landfill being one, the roads, the utilities and things like that,” said Doug Crabill, Urbana community development manager.

The city and school district talked through many of those issues earlier this year before the EPA brought up the methane gas issue, he said.

The new property isn’t in the city limits but Crabill said it has easier access to city utilities than the old site.

The property might need to be annexed into the city to hook up to water and sewer lines, Crabill said. Any upgrades needed would be at the district’s expense, he said.

Annexation is possible, Thiel said, but only if it doesn’t delay construction.

“We’re not necessarily opposed to annexation,” Thiel said. “What we don’t want and will not allow is the annexation process to delay construction of our building. We’ve already been delayed through the process because of the issues the city has with the gas migration at the landfill site.”

Some residents said they have been frustrated by the setbacks and changes to the school construction plans.

“It’s difficult to watch this community go through this,” said Abigail LeBlanc, 21, of Urbana, who is currently studying science education at Wright State University.

LeBlanc said she hopes the construction issues can be cleared up soon so the schools can focus their attention solely on bettering students’ education.

“Because I feel there are a lot of kids here that have potential that aren’t getting the attention that they need,” LeBlanc said.

It’s not yet clear what the district will do with the property on Community Drive if construction moves ahead on the property near U.S. 68, Thiel said.

In the meantime, it will continue to be farmed. The district has owned the roughly 54-acre property near Community Drive since 2005 and Thiel estimated it cost about $890,000 to buy.

“That’s a discussion the board will have to have at some point,” Thiel said. “Right now with the issues with the methane gas it might be devalued even as farmland because of that question.”

The district has about 90 days to conduct due diligence at the new site, which will allow time to work through concerns about utilities and conduct a site survey, Thiel said. An early estimate to redevelop plans for the school at the new site is about $150,000, he said.

Thiel argued the district had done the work necessary to ensure the initial site near Community Drive would be a good fit, but said the EPA’s concerns about methane were a surprise.

The district sought input from an engineering firm as late as 2014 before moving forward with the project to make sure the site was viable, Thiel said, but no concerns were raised at the time.

“The report that we got back did not indicate anything of concern for us,” Thiel said.

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