Call it a compromise, or call it concession, or call it a broken promise and breach of trust.
Depending on what side of the schoolyard you’re standing, recent tweaks to Dreher High School’s plans for a new athletic field and tennis courts could be the key to better and fairer sports opportunities for Columbia high schoolers. Or, it could be a stomp in the face of residents intent on protecting the character of their neighborhood.
After a year-plus-long battle with the school’s Heathwood and Melrose neighbors, Dreher and the Richland 1 school district have changed their athletic facilities plan to try to win the support of neighbors and city leaders.
In a new site plan being brought to the city, Dreher would shift the orientation of its desired artificial turf field; forgo lighting, a sound system and a press box at the field; and situate bleachers away from nearby houses.
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“It’s not perfect, but perfection is the enemy of good,” said Michael Burkett, a Dreher parent and a past president of the school’s athletic booster club. “I don’t think we can give up anything else. Not everyone gets everything they want, us and the neighbors. So maybe that means it’s the best plan yet.”
School supporters have said they’re trying to give Dreher students the same athletic opportunities as other students in Richland 1.
Many Dreher athletes have to travel to practice and compete at off-campus facilities. The new field and tennis courts would allow soccer, tennis and JV and middle school football teams to practice and play home games at Dreher.
Efforts to reach Richland 1 facilities director Raymond Perkins to comment on this story were unsuccessful.
But neighbors have had concerns about possible increased lights, noise and traffic. What’s more, they’ve been unwilling to let the school go back on a plan set in 2003 that said there would be no competition fields on campus.
And despite the school’s revisions to the athletic facilities plan, some neighbors still aren’t willing to accept the plan.
“Compromise means one side gives something and another side gives something,” said Heathwood resident Hamilton Osborne. He was a member of the Columbia City Council that voted more than a decade ago to allow Richland 1 to rebuild Dreher High School on its site, with the zoning conditions school officials are now trying to undo.
True compromise, Osborne said, “doesn’t mean you’re going to get what you want and the other side is just going to have to acquiesce. What is the neighborhood being offered other than less than what was originally in the plan?”
Besides the issue of compromise, neighbors say the school district hasn’t answered questions about the details of the new site plan, such as distances from nearby homes, the height of the bleachers or the types of lights to be used at the tennis courts.
“I don’t think we’re far enough along to say that what they’ve presented is something we can say, ‘that’s fine,’” Heathwood neighborhood co-president Sam Waters said.
City Councilman Daniel Rickenmann said he won’t give the school his support without answers to all the residents’ questions on top of something more: A legally binding agreement between the school district and the surrounding neighborhoods concerning any future changes to the Dreher campus.
He wants to see an agreement that will make sure “all future changes are done with all parties agreeing, not pitting people against each other,” Rickenmann said.
But even a new legal agreement might not sway some of the neighbors. The school district, they say, already has proved untrustworthy.
“The district has already displayed its willingness to breach agreements,” Osborne said. “Within a year, the district could well be back saying ... ‘We’re not getting full use of it because we don’t have lights. All the other fields have lights. It’s just not fair.’ ... Why should we trust anything the district says now?”
It will be up to City Council eventually to give a key approval or denial for a rezoning request for the campus. That rezoning would open the door to the city’s zoning board potentially approving the plan for the field and courts.
Council members had the chance to vote on the request last spring but stalled, allowing the school district to withdraw its rezoning request and bring back a new one, restarting the approval process.
The rezoning request could come before the city Planning Commission in February. The Planning Commission has recommended denial for the same request twice in the past year.
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.