After three hours of impassioned public comments Tuesday night, there is still no resolution to the controversial issue of Dreher High School’s hopes for new on-campus sports facilities at its urban campus.
City Council members chose to put off a vote on a zoning change that could open the door for the school to construct five new tennis courts and a multi-use athletic field with stadium-style lighting and bleacher seating – a proposal that has riled uncompromising neighbors for months.
“No one was wrong,” Mayor Steve Benjamin said after hearing more than 60 people speak strongly for and against the school’s wishes at a hearing attended by more than 400 people who packed into council chambers and an overflow room at City Hall.
Benjamin said council members need more time to deliberate the question and try to help the two sides come together.
The issue has festered for months.
The school and Richland 1 school district say they want to give Dreher students the same athletic opportunities as students at every other high school in the district.
Many who spoke in favor of Dreher – including numerous current and future Dreher students – harped on fairness and safety as reasons to allow the on-campus field and tennis courts.
“Dreher students should have the right that our peers already have,” said Jay Washington, a Dreher student and athlete. “We shouldn’t be at a disadvantage.”
Meanwhile, residents of the adjacent Heathwood and Melrose Heights neighborhoods have loudly worried that on-campus sports facilities would not only increase traffic, light and noise near their homes, but would violate a 14-year-old promise by the district not to expand the school or host competitive sports on the campus.
“We want these kids to have every advantage that they can have ... but can we not find a better place to do it than 5 feet from somebody’s house?” said Martha Fowler, a longtime Melrose Heights resident. “That’s just too tight.”
Speakers supporting Dreher’s rezoning outnumbered those against it by about three to two.
“I understand and respect everyone’s opinions, but we have to put our youth and our children first,” said Sheila Myers, the president of the Dreher school improvement council. “That’s why we have what you call compromise, and we have to teach our children the value of compromise.”
Twice in the past six months, the city Planning Commission has recommended the school be denied a zoning change from a planned unit development, or PUD, to a residential classification that could allow the sports fields.
Now, it’s up to City Council to decide whether to make that zoning change. Even with the rezoning, the school still would need to receive special exception from the city’s zoning board to go forward with the facilities plans.