September 10, 2008 MILTON -
Depending on who you believe, the Fulton County School System moved its plans for a high school off Freemanville Road after community complaints from deep-pocketed neighbors, or because a preferred parcel - unavailable two years ago - suddenly became available.
Regardless of the version, the school system formally purchased a 64-acre parcel of land at southeast corner of Bethany Bend and Cogburn Road late last week, where it will build the new high school.
The 117-acre parcel it also owns on Freemanville Road, previously planned for the high school, will now house only a future middle school, with any unneeded acreage eventually sold off once final site plans are developed. The high school is scheduled to open in August 2012, followed by the middle school opening in August 2013.
The new high school site at Cogburn/Bethany sits directly across from Kings Ridge Christian School, and not far from St. Francis High School. Hopewell Middle School and Cogburn Elementary School are about a half-mile south of the the intersection at Cogburn and Windward Parkway.
The Bethany/Cogburn parcel was purchased from developer David Chatham for just under $20 million, according to sources, and is already in the early stages of development with considerable clearing and turn lanes already in place. Chatham had planned to develop the parcel for residential properties, but apparently had a change of heart likely due to the slump in the housing market.
Alpharetta School Board member Katie Reeves said the Chatham property was a top consideration when the board searched for property a few years back, but was not pursued for a number of reasons. "When we purchased the property on Freemanville, the site at Bethany and Cogburn was considered," maintains Reeves. "At that point, given the economy of the moment, we did not have a willing seller. With the property being actively developed [at that time], it was thought not to be in the best interest of the system or its taxpayers to pursue that route."
That route would probably have included condemnation proceedings and other legal action to wrest away the property, whereas the Freemanville site had a willing seller.
Reeves said circumstances developed in the past six months to change the situation. The Freemanville parcel was purchased with the intent of placing a high school and middle school on the site, similar to the set-up for Milton High and Northwestern Middle. But after viewing site plans developed by the architect, it became apparent topography concerns limited usable land.
"In order to build our prototype middle school, we would have had to build a three-story high school, which was just unacceptable," said Reeves.
At about the same time, the Chatham property became available, providing the perfect solution. In addition, the budget for Fiscal Year 2009 included funding for land, allowing the board to buy the site without dipping into reserves. Reeves said it was a win-win for everyone – the community and the school system.
"The Bethany/Cogburn site allows for access from two different streets – a huge plus for a high school campus. It is also in close proximity to a major highway and central to our target search area.The fact that it is one of few sewered sites large enough to accommodate a high school campus is a plus as well," said Reeves.
It's proximity to Ga. 9 and Ga. 400, as well as its sewer access, all made it prime property for the school system.
Local residents pan new school site
While many residents in the Freemanville Road area are cheering the news that the Board of Education has changed its mind about building the new high school in Birmingham, residents around the new site are making their opposition known.
Already Bethany area neighbors are filling up blog sites and school board members' e-mail boxes with complaints about traffic, congestion and the system's change of heart.
"Not only does Milton not need another high school, we can't afford it," said Milton resident Tara Chambers. " The Board of Ed is not only taking up one of our large parcels that was going to be developed, they are now taking two."
Chambers pointed out the Cogburn/Bethany site was supposed to generate home sites with price points in the $500,000 to $700,000 range generating needed tax revenue. "Now we will have a school we don't need and the additional expenses that go along with it. Milton is going to have to spend huge amounts of money to redo this intersection to make it livable for the residents," she said.
Others in the area are venting that two-lane Cogburn Road will now deal with traffic from five schools, and are pointing the finger at influential White Columns residents who banded together to kick out the high school.
"We're beginning to see who is on the tail that wags the dog in Milton," said one resident who asked to remain anonymous. "Their issue was traffic. How is this site better from a traffic standpoint?"
As far as complaints that a new high school is not needed, school board member Katie Reeves points to attendance forecasts which estimate nearly 3,000 students at Milton High School by 2011 without relief from another high school. Milton High has 2,340 students enrolled this fall in a school built for a core capacity of 2,150. Portable classrooms have been in place for the past two years in what is a relatively new school.
School system officials said as soon as a site plan is developed for the new high school, a series of meetings will be conducted for community input. In the meantime, Reeves has scheduled her regular monthly, community meeting for Sept. 16 at 7 p.m. at Alpharetta High School.