Lake Norman & Mooresville

Rules aim to make walk to school safer

After about four years of dealing with a potentially dangerous drop-off and pick-up point near J.V. Washam Elementary in Cornelius, parents, children and school staff hope to soon see permanent relief.

The trouble spot is a cul-de-sac adjacent to the school's alternative entrance on John Hawkes Drive, which is designed to be used by fire and rescue workers and only is accessible through the Weatherstone neighborhood. The actual entrance is blocked by a gate, but parents sometimes drop off kids in their cars and use the cul-de-sac for easy in-and-out access.

Many children and their parents walk or ride bikes to and from the school through the same area, and parents concerned about pedestrian and biker safety sought a permanent resolution.

In a special meeting for concerned residents last week, town officials asked for public input and agreed to draft an ordinance to prohibit drop-off and pick-up traffic at the cul-de-sac. The ordinance would go into effect as soon as its approved by commissioners. They were scheduled to vote on it on Sept. 20.

The ordinance would prohibit drop-off and pick-up of students for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon, and vehicles would not be allowed to stop in or within about 200 feet of the cul-de-sac area, said assistant town manager Andrew Grant. New signs also will be posted to mark the change and will be erected within a month. A town ordinance would be required to address the issue because the street is a public right-of-way just outside the property limits of the school.

Parents, town officials and school staff agree that stopping traffic at the alternative entrance is a no-brainer and that allowing cars to be part of the mix creates an unnecessary possibility for someone to get hurt.

Commissioner Dave Gilroy in a recent e-mail newsletter said there was a clear consensus that the situation must be addressed because more than 100 proactive parents from the community have pushed for the change.

Through the help of Police Chief Bence Hoyle, town management, the school and parents, Gilroy said he is certain they will find a pragmatic, enforceable solution.

He said the answer is simple: Have the children ride the bus, or go through the drop-off/pick-up line at the main entrance, where parents enter off Westmoreland Road.

"Those are adequate alternatives for people who are dropping off kids from their cars in the cul-de-sac," he said. "There's an organized line (for cars): One way in, one way out, you loop around and help manage the flow," he said.

"That's different than the unsupervised, off-premises, discombobulated and unstructured routing that you can have in and out of a tight cul-de-sac," said Gilroy.

Rebekah Miller regularly walks her 6-year-old, Brendan, to school and attended last week's special meeting for residents about the issue.

She said she sees it as a walker, biker, child safety and community issue, not just a Weatherstone neighborhood issue. She became aware of the issue last year after her son started attending the school.

"There have been plenty of near misses," said Miller, who lives in the Weatherstone neighborhood. "Cars and people funneling into a small space just don't mix. Something's needed to keep children and adults safe and pedestrian and biker traffic safe. By passing the ordinance, we will be effectively eliminating that hazard.

"The police department has done a phenomenal job telling people that it is their preference that they not drop off (at the cul-de-sac), but up until the ordinance is passed, the vehicles are free to travel on the public road."

Ian Mullaney, another Weatherstone resident, also regularly walks his 5-year-old daughter, Ezme, to school.

"It makes perfect sense that when people are dropping off their kids at school, or picking them up from school, that access is only allowed to pedestrians and cyclists and not motorists."

Principal Ray Giovanelli said about 300 cars filter their way through the drop-off and pick-up lines on any given day, and the number increases to about 400 as it gets colder.

The entire morning arrival process takes about 30 minutes. Traffic gets thicker between 7:15-7:30 a.m., but most cars get in and out in 15 minutes or less, he said. Strategically positioned staff throughout the parking lot and a focus on one drop-off point in the front also help speed the process, he said.

"Parents took more of a proactive stance this summer to get it resolved, but it's been an underlying issue for quite some time," said Giovanelli. "This is the fifth year the elementary has been opened."

Giovanelli said he has never seen anything happen, but has been notified of several close calls by concerned parents. He has no jurisdiction over what happens, but said he will support whatever the town decides.

"I think it obviously would be safer for the kids," said Giovanelli. "Any time you have kids walking and riding bikes and you have vehicles moving in the area, there's always a chance something could happen."