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Posted: May 3, 2009 12:01 a.m.

Covington City Council votes on private Christian academy

Mayor casts deciding vote

Update - May 4, 9:00 p.m.

Mayor Kim Carter once again cast the tie-breaking city council vote Monday night in support of a special use permit for Janice VanNess’ Christian Peachtree Academy, which would be built off McGuirts Bridge Road. In what was at times a contentious discussion, VanNess, area residents and city councils members made arguments for and against the building of the school. The most important issue for council members was increased traffic.

City council members John Howard, Keith Dalton and Mike Whatley said they didn’t think the school would be built because the county and Georgia Department of Transportation wouldn’t approve hundreds of extra cars traveling along U.S. 278 and McGuirts Bridge Road, no matter what road improvements were made.

“I can almost say right now that the DOT won’t approve the changes (that would have to be made according to the traffic study),” Howard said.

Even though the city council approved VanNess’ SUP, she now has to pay for a traffic study of the area to be conducted, which would list any road improvements and changes that would have to be made in order for the area to accommodate the increased traffic. The county engineer and DOT would have to sign off on these changes.

Even some of the council members who voted for the project said they just didn’t think the area was right for the school. Carter who cast the tie-breaking vote in favor agreed traffic would be a concern, but she said that decision was the county’s and DOT’s to make.

“I agree that the location is not ideal and that traffic is a big deal,” Carter said. “I hope you (VanNess) have deep pockets, because the road improvements would need to be (extensive). However, we can’t deny you the right to spend your money.”

For more on this story check out Wednesday’s edition of The Covington News.

Below is information that appeared in the Sunday, May 3 edition of The News.

Tomorrow JaNice VanNess will seek the city council’s approval for the second time this year to build her private, Christian Peachtree Academy off McGuirts Bridge Road.

VanNess said the school would meet the demand for private schooling in Newton County, but residents on McGuirts Bridge and Fairfield roads said the traffic caused by the school would negatively and unreasonably affect their ability to drive into and out of their neighborhood.

The public will be able to comment before the Covington City Council votes on Monday at 6:30 p.m.

VanNess applied for a Special Use Permit to build her school in December and the proposal was hotly debated by both the planning commission and the city council earlier this year. After the planning commission approved the SUP, the permit went before the city council for final approval. The council tied 3-3 and Mayor Kim Carter had to cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of the school on Feb. 2.

However, VanNess was unable to get a loan from BB&T to build the school because of the five-year limit that the planning commission placed on the SUP. VanNess would have had to reapply for the SUP in five years at which point the planning commission and city council would reevaluate the situation and re-vote. Because the school could be forced to close at that point, BB&T wrote that in order to secure a loan, VanNess would have to have the property permanently zoned to be allowed to house a school.

So VanNess reapplied for a Special Use Permit asking for the time limit to be eliminated.

On April 28 at a special-called meeting, the Covington Planning Commission voted to approve both of these amendments and the SUP was approved for a second time.

At the meeting Tony Webb, a McGuirts Bridge Road resident and unofficial spokesperson for the other residents, said he didn’t understand why the commission voted that the five-year limit on the SUP was in the best interest of the city earlier and then changed course and voted that it wasn’t necessary.

"The problem is that the commission wasn’t concerned about this clause until they found out VanNess couldn’t borrow the money," Webb said in an interview Thursday. "It’s like the city is indirectly loaning money. They need to change the rule when they’re not on the firing line."

He also said that increasing the number of students allowed at the school would exacerbate the future traffic congestion. He said that if there was only going to be around 200 students that would be fine, but 500, 600 and 1,000 students is too many, because of all the cars that will be traveling on the small stretch of McGuirts Bridge Road. The section of road from of McGuirts Bridge Road from U.S. 278 to the proposed driveway location of the school is 0.2 miles.

Even if the city council approves VanNess’ SUP, she will still need to get a traffic study, which will answer many of the questions being raised. Interim Planning Director Randy Vinson said that traffic studies normally cost anywhere between $4,000 to $10,000. The SUP is being passed first because VanNess wanted to be assured of being able to open her school if she can meet the traffic study requirements, so that way she won’t have to spend the money for the study first and not be assured of anything.

Webb said both of his driveways will blocked by the school traffic in the morning and afternoon and this infringes on his rights.

"You can’t sell land if it infringes on other people’s rights," he said Tuesday in reference to VanNess attempting to buy property from landowner Carol Veliotis. "I’m not going to get blocked in for four to six hours a day … it’s not going to happen. She has to go through the county, the DOT and me before she gets her school built."

VanNess and Veliotis say the school will provide a great, private Christian school, produce more than 100 jobs once fully built, protect more forested area than a neighborhood and is an example of smart, dense growth.

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