‘Save our parks’: South Charlotte high school site reflects conundrum over land use

The residents of Olde Providence had no idea what was happening when the bulldozers came in, tearing up their beloved trails and knocking down the carefully-tended trees in the park that had been there as long as most anyone could remember.

“What the heck are they doing in the woods?” a neighbor asked Addison Shonts, whose property backs up to the woods. Shonts came home from work to find his neighbor on the porch, hoping he might have some answers. Shonts did not, and neither did anyone else who lived along the patch of woods near Olde Providence Elementary School.

Without warning three weeks ago, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools had begun the process of soil testing the site. The testing was to determine if the land was suitable for a desperately-needed high school campus designed to relieve astronomical crowding in fast-growing south Charlotte. The 125-classroom school is part of the $922 million bond package the county voted to pass in 2017. Construction is slated to begin in March 2021, with an August 2023 opening.

Immediately after they found the bulldozers, Shonts and his neighbors organized and began calling their elected officials. Kevin Kreutzer, president of the Olde Providence Civic Association, organized a community meeting including board members and other decision makers. There was so much interest in attending that he had to cancel it due to capacity concerns.

The district has since stopped work on the project for the time being, board member Sean Strain said in a Sunday night Facebook post. Strain added that the board has now been fully briefed on all alternative sites, and that a decision would be made in the “near-term.”

“All are being reassessed for their location, the site characteristics, the cost, and the ability to acquire the land and still meet the project deadlines,” Strain said in an email to the Observer.

Few in Olde Providence would dispute the need for a relief school — their kids are often the ones jam-packed into overflowing Ardrey Kell and South Mecklenburg. But they say they are anxious about losing the only public green space in the area, home to the South Charlotte Recreation Association, an outdoor classroom and a network of trails that the community maintains.

“I don’t want to be like, woe is us, but there are no other neighborhood playgrounds that are open to the public,” Kreutzer said. “It would have a huge impact on the community.”

The potential loss of the park reflects a conundrum that the county must grapple with as it continues to grow and develop — more jobs, more kids, but eventually, no more unused land where more schools can be built. The Charlotte Ledger, citing real estate consultant Land Advisors, reported that there are only five plots of privately owned land with more than 20 acres south of Pineville-Matthews Road — still significantly smaller than most high school campuses. Those five plots were identified by Land Advisors, a real estate consultancy.

Some in Olde Providence question whether building on the 40-acre piece of land would even be a sufficient solution to south Charlotte’s crowding problem. Myers Park is on 70 acres, and South Mecklenburg takes up more than 50. Christy Gannon, who lives in the area but whose property isn’t adjacent to the park, said that with the continuing growth in the region, building a school on such a small piece of land might not be a sustainable long-term solution.

“There’s not going to be more land and growth is going to continue,” she said. “So we have to have room to expand. That’s my concern. It’s already so small, you can’t expand there if you need to.”

Gannon also said that her neighborhood isn’t where most of the new developments are going up — that’s happening miles away in Ballantyne. She added that while it would be great for her kids to have a school so close to home, she was concerned about whether putting a school at Olde Providence, so far from where most development was occurring, would be good for the district as a whole.

“We don’t want the Ballantyne kids on buses for hours every day, either,” she said. “If there was an easy solution, we’d do it, but it’s just not. And that park is very vital to the Olde Providence community.”

Though CMS owns the parcel, the South Charlotte Recreation Association is in charge of maintaining the fields where teams play on its own dime. The league serves more than 1,500 children in five sports, many of whom come from outside the area. The district did not send advanced notice about the soil testing.

“Right now it isn’t impacting us. It’s just created fear and curiosity,” SCRA president Scott Thobe said. “We’ve known because of the age of the school, it would eventually be rebuilt. The surprise for us is the timing.”

Thobe said that he hopes to work with CMS and the county to keep the sports leagues open for the children. But the lack of fields and facilities in the area means it’s likely they will have to disperse over multiple sites, or significantly downsize. In the worst case, if the county cannot help SCRA find enough practice space, it would mean the end of the nearly 50-year-old sports league.

“If a new school is built we will have to close our doors and over 1,000 families will be forced to find alternative youth baseball, softball, and football programs,” the board of directors said in a statement. “We simply cannot relocate our recreation youth sports programs and look forward to collaborating with CMS for a mutually beneficial resolution.”

As for the patch of woods behind Olde Providence Elementary, Kreutzer said it never occurred to him that voting to approve the bond for relief schools would mean the loss of a vital public park. The bond didn’t raise anyone’s taxes, but Kreutzer said he’d be more than willing to pay a little more if that meant enough money for the district to acquire land and save the county’s recreational spaces.

“It would be like saying, ‘Myers Park is overcrowded, let’s lose 28 acres of Freedom Park for a less than comprehensive high school,’” he said. “If you asked me to pay $300 to save our parks, that’s valuable to me.”