About a year after Dreher High School revealed plans for a new sports field and tennis courts on its urban campus, the school remains at an impasse with reluctant neighbors, and Columbia leaders have not taken a stand.
Now, the school’s booster club says it’s willing to go to court to get the ball rolling if the city doesn’t step up. And the club could claim the city is being discriminatory if it blocks the school’s request, the booster club’s recent president indicated in a letter to City Council members this week.
“We are frustrated, and our patience has been exhausted,” wrote Michael Burkett, a booster club member and its immediate past president.
The root of the controversy is this: Dreher wants to put in five competition tennis courts and a multi-use turf field with bleachers and stadium lighting. It needs to be rezoned to do so.
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But many neighbors in the Heathwood and Melrose Heights neighborhoods near the school are adamantly against the plan they fear would bring increased lights, noise and traffic near their homes. And they say allowing the sports facilities would violate a 14-year-old promise by the Richland 1 school district not to expand the school or host competitive sports on the campus.
The school and Richland 1, however, say the facilities are needed to give Dreher students the same sports opportunities as their peers at other schools.
“I feel like if there were a different school sitting here with a different group of kids” there would not be the same conflict, Burkett told The State newspaper Wednesday.
After a three-hour public hearing in May, City Council delayed a vote on the rezoning and encouraged the two sides to try to work out their differences.
Four months later, they’re no closer. Now, either City Council must back up the planning staff’s recommendation, Burkett wrote in his letter, or the booster club may seek a court opinion on the rezoning.
If Dreher is denied the chance to build these sports facilities, the booster club argues, it would be a hypocritical – even discriminatory – move by the city.
In his letter to City Council, Burkett notes that Hammond School, a private school in southeast Columbia, is similarly situated in a neighborhood like Dreher and has the same zoning Dreher is seeking.
“Hammond holds far more events on its campus and facilities with none of the restrictions that Dreher has been asked to accept,” Burkett wrote. “The city chooses to treat the Hammond students differently than it treats the Dreher students ... .”
Burkett noted that Dreher’s student body is made up of a majority of minority students. Nearly half of those students are considered economically disadvantaged, according to Burkett, in contrast to the mostly affluent surrounding neighborhoods.
“I think we have a very different student body than the kids who attend Hammond,” Burkett told The State. “It’s just two different worlds, and we’re simply asking that our students we be treated the same. And right now, we’re not.”
The city, meanwhile, isn’t sitting still on the issue, though no decisions have come yet, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said.
“I appreciate Mr. Burkett’s passion,” Benjamin said. “It’s a passion I see from a lot of parents of Dreher students and also from a lot of neighbors of Dreher who are trying to enjoy the peace and quiet of their homes.”
City and Richland 1 leaders are actively talking and working on coming up with “the right resolution, not just the fastest resolution,” Benjamin said.