Board OKs plan for private school

Mar. 27, 2014 @ 06:42 PM

A small private school now based in Orange County can move to new quarters in Durham off Erwin Road, thanks to a vote this week by the city/county Board of Adjustment.

The 6-1 decision allows the Just Right Academy to move into a former church at 4723 Erwin Road.

Just Right is looking to move from the Shared Visions Retreat Center on Murphy School Road in eastern Orange County. The school services children with problems such as autism, and has outgrown its space.

The permit for its new home will allow it to serve up to 60 children, an enrollment cap in line with a request from neighbors who said, through their attorney, that they fear another, much bigger school could one day use the property.

“We all recognize it’s an outstanding school that does very good work,” lawyer Patrick Byker said. “But the board has to recognize this permit runs with the land, not with Just Right Academy. So in five or 10 years, this could be a charter school, with the likely teacher/pupil ratio nowhere close to what Just Right Academy testified about.”

Byker was alluding to earlier comments from academy director Linda McDonough, who said the school had 32 children, with 14 staffers to watch over them.

“We hope to get up to 50 students,” McDonough said, adding the school wanted space for 60 “to give us some wiggle room.”

The discussion also tied into a second request from neighbors, one rejected by the board, for a condition on the permit forcing the school to install a 6-foot-high masonry fence between it and a neighboring house.

The house, which belongs to Byker client Lee Munson, is on a 3.5-acre tract that also contains a small pond. Munson believes the pond is a potential safety hazard to children at the school.

McDonough said Just Right’s students are closely supervised, going nowhere by themselves during school hours. But Byker said other types of schools aren’t likely to monitor their children as closely.

Just Right’s lawyer, Bob Hornik, responded by noting the building has housed schools before without any requirement for a fence. Insisting on one now “I think is way above and beyond” the actual need, he told the board.

The permit does require Just Right to place its playground to the west of the church building, away from the Munson property. That squared with a request from Byker, One Hornik agreed to without argument.

A west-side placement should also help reduce noise from the playground, they agreed.

The board was originally supposed to vote on the permit last month, but delayed the decision because the school didn’t have an expert on hand to counter complaints from neighbors the project could hurt the value of their property.

McDonough and Hornik this time around were accompanied by David Smith, a Durham appraiser who’s also a former leader of the Friends of Durham, one of the city’s big-three political groups.

Smith told the board his study of home sales near Trinity School, a private school off Pickett Road, suggested a school doesn’t affect the resale value of a home.

An expert brought in by Munson and Byker, Henderson appraiser Jack Blackburn, countered that the homes near Trinity School are larger and not directly comparable to Munson’s two-bedroom house.

Byker added that a 2002 N.C. Supreme Court ruling counseled that when property values are an issue in permit reviews, appraisers should look strictly at homes close to the project site.

Just Right for not doing that “failed to carry their burden of proof,” he said.

But the board’s chairman, George Kolasa, said Erwin Road’s status as a major commuter corridor probably has more influence on the value of land around the former church than anything else.

The dissenting vote came from member Damian Makarushka, who did not explain his reasoning.