Richland planners OK with 2 schools running

By Sara Schilling, Tri-City HeraldOctober 23, 2013 

New School in Richland

Michael Rung picks up branches recently in the back yard of his home overlooking Sacajawea Elementary in Richland. Rung and several people living near the north Richland school aren't happy about a proposed two-story school that would be built not far from their back yards. The new school, which will have about 20,000 more square feet of space, and provide additional classrooms for kindergartners, computer labs and a multipurpose room that will serve as a lunchroom, is one of several projects in a $98 million bond approved by voters in February. The Richland Planning Commission held a public hearing Wednesday night on a Richland School District request to temporarily operate two schools on the Sacajawea Elementary site.

RICHARD DICKIN — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

The Richland Planning Commission on Wednesday night voted to allow the temporary operation of two schools at the Sacajawea Elementary campus on Catskill Street.

The decision to grant the Richland School District's request came at the end of a 21/2 hour meeting that included public testimony from about a dozen residents, largely in opposition. Concerns about increased traffic and pedestrian safety were running themes.

The commission's approval came with several conditions, including some meant to help address those potential impacts.

James Utz, vice chairman of the commission, told residents that he understood their concerns but that he saw the request as beneficial to the community as a whole -- a sentiment echoed by some others at the dais.

The final vote was 5-1, with Commissioner James Wise casting the sole vote against granting the district's request. He told the Herald he had concerns about the environmental checklist and traffic analysis prepared as part of the request process.

The planning commission has nine members total. Commissioners Carol Moser and Stanley Jones were absent Wednesday and Commissioner Debbie Berkowitz recused herself because she lives in the neighborhood.

The planning commission's decision can be appealed to the city council.

School district voters in February approved a $98 million bond measure to pay for several capital projects, including rebuilding Sacajawea, Marcus Whitman and Lewis & Clark elementary schools.

When the district rebuilt Jason Lee Elementary several years ago, it continued to use the old building to house students while it constructed the new one on the same site. When the new Jason Lee was done, the old facility was demolished.

The district has said the same approach would work for Lewis & Clark and Sacajawea, but not Marcus Whitman because of the configuration of that campus.

So it proposed the idea of keeping the old Sacajawea building open after the new facility is done to house Marcus Whitman students while their new school is under construction.

The two schools would only need to operate at the same time on the Sacajawea site for a single school year, a district official told the Herald.

The planning commission approved the request with some conditions, including that the arrangement could only last during the time the new Marcus Whitman is being built, the parking lot of the new Sacajawea school must have room for at least 150 vehicles and the start times of the two schools must be staggered by at least 30 minutes.

The vast majority of residents who addressed the planning commission about the request raised concerns mainly about safety and traffic.

Operating the two schools at once on the Sacajawea campus "will create overwhelming traffic," said resident Judy Cox during the public hearing. Resident Don Sebelien said traffic today is orderly and manageable, "but almost anything can upset this."

A couple residents spoke in support of the request. Kyle Stoddard told commissioners that "we can live with it for one year."

-- Sara Schilling: 582-1529; sschilling@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @saraTCHerald

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