South Charlotte

Loss of trees upsets some neighbors

Some neighbors of Covenant Day School in Matthews are crying foul over the school's new ball fields, currently under construction.

To accommodate its growth, including the addition of a high school, Covenant Day recently cleared about 18 acres of nearby land to build two soccer fields, a softball field and a baseball field, which are scheduled to be completed in March.

The land, which is in Covenant Day's Warner Park along N.C. 51, backs up to a row of homes in the Sardis Forest neighborhood.

Many of the residents are concerned about the damage the construction has done to what used to be a lush portion of the town's shrinking tree canopy.

The area is completely exposed now, with major gaps, said Deanna Burns, whose backyard faces the new construction.

"You're looking at batting cages, chain-link fencing," said Burns. "(It) was a loss to all the citizens."

But Head of School Dr. Marni Halvorson said the fields were necessary to accommodate the school's growth.

Between Covenant Day's students and the children involved in Christ Covenant Church's sports ministry, more than 1,500 students and children will now have access to outdoor sports, Halvorson said.

The Town of Matthews requires that the school maintain a 50-foot buffer between the recreational fields and the residents' homes, and 20 feet of the 50-foot buffer must be landscape screening materials.

Planning director for the Town of Matthews Kathi Ingrish said the school's plans follow the town's regulations. The plans include landscape screening on all 50 feet and exceed the town's minimum requirements, Ingrish said.

A relatively new tree ordinance also requires that 20 percent of newly cleared property must be either preserved tree canopy or replaced with other vegetation. Covenant Day has preserved just more than 20 percent, Ingrish said.

But the residents argue that even though the 50-foot buffer was maintained, it's too sparse and too few of the town's trees were preserved in the construction.

"For a number of years, adjoining the property, they could only see wooded space. Understandably, they're not thrilled," said Halvorson. "But it is private property, and it's being done in accordance with the town's ordinances."

Covenant Day has owned the land since 1997, when it acquired 27 acres along N.C. 51 across the street from the school's main campus.

Within three years, they developed a portion of the land into a baseball field and soccer field - the portion closest to the road and farthest from Sardis Forest.

Because the residents' backyards faced 18 acres of dense woods and wildlife, they were content.

But this second round of fields called for more dirt, more lights and more tree-chopping.

"We never saw the stadium lights (before), even in the winter when all of the leaves had fallen," said Burns. "Sadly, now I see cars, car headlights going back and forth on Highway 51. ...It's pretty stark, the compare and contrast."

When the school built the first fields, it also made a running trail for the school's cross country team that weaved through the woods. The school gave the residents open access to the trail.

It was a gem, Burns said.

There was wildlife and trees that were 100-plus feet tall - some of which the science classes had labeled with yellow signs.

But as the trees disappeared, much of the trail did as well.

Burns' neighbor Dorie Charnin lives in a one-story house next to the new fields.

A licensed psychologist, she practices from her home and now keeps the blinds at the back of her house closed all day. Charanin said her patients aren't happy with the constant construction, six days a week.

Charnin, 57, who had planned to retire at her current home, now plans to brave the dismal housing market by March.

"It is their property - let's not discard that," said Charnin. "We're just the unfortunate property-owners who spent their life-savings on (these) homes."

Lights off early

In August, Halvorson met with the neighbors living next to the property as well as the neighbors living across from them to give the school's vision for the property.

"I understand that having enjoyed lovely wooded area, it's unnerving to see it (now)," said Halvorson. "We want to come alongside and be compassionate. ...We want to be good neighbors."

Some of Covenant Day's high school athletes spoke at the meeting, explaining how important sports had been to their education. Then the neighbors posed questions and voiced their concerns: the noise, the lights, the buffer.

The Town of Matthews has a noise ordinance, which is checked by the police department on a complaint basis, according to Ingrish.

The current light ordinance says lights like those on the new fields can't be on before 8 a.m. and must be off by 11 p.m.

Covenant Day plans for the lights to be turned off as soon as the last player walks off the field, which is usually around 9 or 9:30 p.m.

"If there's no one on the field, it would not only save electricity, but it would mean they're not shining (on the neighbors)," said Halvorson.

The residents would like the school to hire a landscape architect as soon as possible to begin filling in the buffer with fast-growing trees.

Halvorson has told residents they will consider filling in the buffer when the fields are finished and that it could be a good task for the senior class or any Eagle Scouts who need a project.

Halvorson said she welcomes residents to plant trees in their backyards or to put up screening and fencing.

Burns and several other residents were scheduled to speak under the "miscellaneous" portion of the Town of Matthews board meeting Monday evening. (This story was printed prior to the meeting.)

"It's the noise, the sound, the lights, the property value, the quality of living. It's unsightly," said Burns. "By no stretch does that compliment the neighborhood. ...We just kind of feel like stepchildren and really don't feel like anybody is looking out for the best interest of the neighbors."