A push for new tennis courts and an athletics practice and competition field at Dreher High School are sparking tension with nearby homeowners.
Dreher wants to add five competition tennis courts to replace two that cannot be used for matches along with an artificial turf field with seating for up to 900 people as well as associated lights and sound on its campus near downtown Columbia.
These are needed upgrades, officials say, for the safety of Dreher athletes who often travel off-campus for competition and to provide facilities similar to those at other Richland 1 schools.
“We do have a population that is currently being underserved by the lack of facilities because they can’t get to where they need to go” off-campus, said Michael Burkett, president of the school booster club.
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The $4 million project is part of a $39.5 million package of improvements in Richland 1 sports facilities.
Lights, noise and traffic associated with it are stirring concern in the Heathwood and Melrose Heights neighborhoods adjoining Dreher.
Residents want to stick to a 13-year-old agreement barring competition fields and other features on the Millwood Avenue campus that were agreed to in 2003 before Dreher was rebuilt.
The new field and tennis courts would be “a major and upsetting change for the neighborhood,” said Sam Waters, co-president of the Heathwood neighborhood association.
“We’re not against progress. We’re not against Dreher having the best,” he said. “We want them to find a place where they can have a state-of-the-art athletics complex.”
That needs to be somewhere else, longtime Heathwood resident Jim Gregory said. “None of us begrudge them a very nice stadium somewhere,” he said. “This is just not the place to put it.”
Some Dreher teams now practice in grassy, unlit fields on campus while others go elsewhere. All teams but basketball play games off-site.
New on-site facilities will give more of the nearly 1,200 students at Dreher a chance to participate in sports, supporters of the project say.
“We’re not eliminating kids because they can’t get a ride or their parents don’t want them traveling off-campus because of safety concerns,” Richland 1 athletics director Bob Matz said.
The proposed field would be used practices and for competitions that draw small crowds. school officials say.
New lights would have minimal impact on surrounding homes, used sparingly and turned off before late evening, Richland 1 facilities director Raymond Perkins said.
Traffic around the school would not change significantly even with the new facilities, Matz and Perkins said.
But neighbors believe the impact would be more intrusive than school officials expect.
School supporters are willing to compromise on some elements, including reducing seating, reconsidering sound and restricting light use, Burkett said.
But some residents aren’t satisfied with that offer. “We’ve compromised all we’re going to compromise,” Gregory said.
Dreher needs a zoning change for the new athletic facilities. City planners recommended a shift to residential classification from a planned unit development status, which has numerous restrictions on what can be put on the campus.
Even if the school gets rezoning, it also needs an exception from the city Board of Zoning Appeals to allow new athletic facilities.
The effort to add the facilities got off to a rocky start when the city Planning Commission recently recommended denial of the zoning change.
But City Council has the ultimate say on the change. Its seven members aren’t likely to consider the matter until March, zoning administrator Brian Cook said.
Councilman Moe Baddourah, who represents Melrose Heights and a portion of Heathwood, is sympathetic to neighbors’ frustrations, but understands Dreher’s need to grow.
“I’d like to have this resolved before it comes to City Council,” he said. “For me, if a compromise is not reached, I couldn’t support (the rezoning).”
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School officials would use new sports facilities these ways:
▪ A field with artificial turf would be used for junior varsity and middle school football practice and some games as well as soccer practice and junior varsity soccer games, Richland 1 athletic director Bob Matz said.
▪ The band also could practice practice there when the grass is too muddy, Matz said.
▪ Only games would be played at the field are ones expected to draw crowds of fewer than 100 people despite plans for seating for up to 900, Matz said.
▪ Five new tennis courts would host practices and games. The school’s two current courts are unfit for competition, so teams play at city-owned courts off -campus.
▪ All football games and practices would remain at Memorial Stadium in the Rosewood neighborhood about two miles from school.