Durham private school’s move draws objections

Feb. 25, 2014 @ 06:26 PM

A small private school’s run into a stumbling block in its hopes to move to a new home on Erwin Road, in the form of would-be neighbors and the city/county Board of Adjustment.

The board on Tuesday delayed a vote on the permit the Just Right Academy needs before it can move into a former church at 4723 Erwin Road.

Members opted for the postponement after Patrick Byker, attorney for a next-door neighbor of the site, pointed out the school’s advocates hadn’t addressed how the project might affect the value of nearby property.

Under local law, “100 percent of the burden of proof for showing no serious impact on property values falls on the applicant,” meaning the permit “should be denied,” said Byker, a member of the Morningstar Law group.

Byker by contrast had arranged for a real-estate agent and an appraiser to testify that the school’s presence would hurt the value of client Lee Munson’s house.

Thus challenged, the board encouraged Just Right’s director, Linda McDonough, to agree to delay a vote until its next meeting in late March.

“You might want to have the opportunity to make a better case,” board Chairman George Kolasa told her. “If we’re not comfortable with the evidence, you’re putting yourself at risk for a ‘no’ vote.”

Just Right Academy is looking to move to Durham and leave its current home, the Shared Visions Retreat Center on Murphy School Road in Orange County.

Its landlord at Shared Visions, Jay Miller, said the school is a good tenant, but has “outgrown the current facility.”

McDonough and her staff cater to children who need “both remediation and challenge along with a multi-sensory way of learning,” which in practice means kids with problems such as autism and Down Syndrome.

The school’s work drew praise from a couple of parents with children there, including Eric Benner, a Duke University School of Medicine pediatrics researcher who said he’d seriously considered moving his lab to another state to get his child out of Durham Public Schools.

Just Right’s teachers “do wonderful work with all the children” it serves, Benner said.

But neighbors, including one otherwise supportive of the project, noted that Erwin Road sees heavy traffic on weekdays. It’s a direct link between Chapel Hill and Duke that allows motorists to bypass U.S. 15-501.

The Erwin corridor also is home to two other schools, the private Duke School and the public, DPS-run Forest View Elementary, that contribute to the traffic.

Resident William Abernathy said he favors approval of the project, provided Just Right puts in turn lanes at its driveway, along with a concrete median to keep motorists from making a left turn to leave the site.

He noted that the Duke School has a “large turn lane” in front of it and also hires off-duty police to direct traffic at its driveway twice a day.

Munson’s worries take in the traffic, but also concern the prospective noise from children playing at recess, along with the safety of having them near a pond that’s on his property.

The real-estate agent who backed him, Lucia Cooke, said the building is close enough to Munson’s property that a school definitely would hurt the value of his home.

Appraiser Jack Blackburn agreed, saying the traffic and noise “would be two negative influences to a prospective purchaser.”

Board members seemed skeptical.

The city’s traffic engineers, meanwhile, say they don’t see a need for road upgrades at Just Right’s prospective driveway. The school is accepting a 60-student enrollment cap; McDonough said she’s not planning to accept more than 50.

Benner thought the comparisons with Duke School weren’t on point, given the size of Just Right. “There’s got to be somebody who would figure out if that would be necessary or not, not just the testimony of a concerned neighbor,” he said, reacting to Abernathy’s suggested alterations to Erwin Road.

But the property-value issue remained, as the school in fact hadn’t addressed it.

Byker said his practice in Board of Adjustment permit hearings is to always bring an appraiser.

Senior Assistant City Attorney Emanuel McGirt told board members that while that might not be strictly necessary, the law is clear that a “layperson cannot given an opinion on how a proposal will affect someone else’s property,” value-wise.