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2018-06-20 / Featured / Government & Schools / News

Harrowgate school plan stirs angst in Chester

BY JIM McCONNELL SENIOR WRITER


Chester resident Frances Wargofcak, at Harrowgate Park last week, worries about the park’s future if plans to build a school on the property move forward. 
ASH DANIEL Chester resident Frances Wargofcak, at Harrowgate Park last week, worries about the park’s future if plans to build a school on the property move forward. ASH DANIEL As a group of children played basketball nearby, Frances Wargofcak watched her granddaughter swing back and forth on the playground at Harrowgate Park and pondered the park’s future. County and school officials want to build a new school on the site, but she says no one has explained what will happen to the park.

For Wargofcak, whose family has deep roots in southern Chester, the park is important. While newer subdivisions offer an array of amenities for residents’ use, Harrowgate Park serves a community that has few other recreational options nearby.

“As a grandparent, I can’t afford to buy all that playground equipment myself,” she said.

Citizens opposed to the potential destruction of one of Chesterfield’s oldest public parks cried foul last September after the local school system announced plans to build a new Harrowgate Elementary there. While county officials say the new school won’t mean the end of the park – the playground and most athletic fields will be preserved – some say the process has been less than transparent.

Harrowgate Elementary, which was built in 1959, originally was slated for extensive renovation with proceeds from a 2013 bond referendum. That changed when county transportation officials determined the school site is located within the preferred alignment of the East-West Freeway, a long-planned roadway that eventually could stretch from Interstate 95 in Walthall to U.S. Route 360 and connect with a proposed extension of Powhite Parkway.

County officials long have envisioned the East-West Freeway as a vital piece of Chesterfield’s future growth, but it was little more than a dotted line on a map until the Economic Development Authority decided to acquire a sprawling piece of south Chester property and develop it for use as an industrial megasite.

In order to begin building the initial 2 ½-mile segment of the roadway – essential for linking the proposed megasite with both the regional transportation network and the nearby Port of Richmond – the EDA needed to get Harrowgate Elementary out of the way as quickly as possible.

The Board of Supervisors committed last fall to provide both an alternate site and additional funding to cover the cost of a replacement school.

After considering five possible locations, the county and school system agreed to build the new Harrowgate Elementary on park property adjacent to Carver Middle School.

While the megasite is in limbo – facing heavy citizen opposition, the EDA withdrew its rezoning application last month – the School Board still intends to relocate Harrowgate Elementary.

“That decision was made independent of the megasite and East-West Freeway,” said Carrie Coyner, the Bermuda District’s representative on the School Board. “We chose the best location for the future of the Harrowgate community.”

The School Board last week initiated a process to determine whether using Harrowgate Park as a school site complies with the county’s comprehensive plan.

The Planning Commission is expected to consider the school system’s substantial accord application at its July 17 meeting and make a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors, which has the final say.

According to the application, the school system wants to build on approximately 35.3 acres at the southern end of the park. That location likely would require destruction of a rectangular athletic field and one baseball/softball field, but would leave intact two other baseball/softball fields, as well as the playground, basketball courts and tennis courts.

Stuart Connock, chief of parks, design and construction services for Chesterfield Parks and Recreation, said the department will address the loss of the existing fields by building two rectangular fields and making improvements to two baseball/softball fields at nearby Carver Middle School.

Parks and Rec staff also are looking to acquire a 20-to-30-acre parcel as close as possible to Harrowgate Park to offset land surrendered for school construction.

“It’s critical to make sure we have quality Parks and Recreation facilities in older parts of the county,” Connock added. “We thought that was a reasonable way to move forward.”

While Wargofcak was relieved to learn that most of the park will be spared, she said county and school officials have done a poor job of conveying that information to the public.

“My biggest problem is the way this has been handled,” said Mike Uzel, leader of the citizen group Bermuda Advocates for Responsible Development. “The county’s attitude seems to be ‘We can do what we want and then tell you what we’re going to do.’ There has been very little community input. Pretending to be open and transparent is not the same as actually being open and transparent.”

Coyner rejected that suggestion, noting that she and other school officials have attended numerous community meetings since last fall and spoke to hundreds of citizens who expressed support for building a new school at Harrowgate Park.

“I can appreciate opposing views, but not being accused of lack of transparency,” she said. “We’ve had more meetings on Harrowgate than any other school site.”

Uzel pointed out that most of the community meetings were organized by the EDA to address citizens’ concerns about the proposed megasite. As such, he said, people still have “unanswered questions” about traffic and other specific issues related to the school relocation.

“How was it communicated to the public that the megasite meetings were for the purpose of discussing the school? It wasn’t,” he said. “Counting those as school meetings doesn’t jibe with what I feel is fair or honest. If that’s the process, we need major changes.” ¦

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