By Andrew McCue
The door that had opened to school construction in Exeter Township's agricultural preservation zone might swing shut in the face of three new buildings proposed by the Exeter Township School District.
Representing a majority, township supervisors Michelle Kircher, Dona Starr and Lisa Ciotti want to reverse a 2005 decision that opened agricultural preservation zones to schools.
At the Monday, Feb. 27 board of supervisors meeting, board Chairman Dr. Christ Ganas and Supervisor Dave Barbieri voted against Kircher's motion to change the zoning law.
In Dec. 2005 the Exeter School Board voted unanimously to buy 110 acres located in the agricultural zone for $3.74 million. The deal is contingent upon approval of the school district's plans to build three schools on the property along Ritters Road.
Also in December, the supervisors voted to approve plans for the construction of a new Central Catholic High School in the agricultural zone.
"I just wish the playing field would stay the same so we would know how to react," said school board President Kenneth P. Levan said. "To let in Central Catholic and shut the door for public schools is unfair."
The pendulum seemed to swing out of the school district's favor when Ciotti voted to rescind the condition that she supported last year. Kircher was not a supervisor until January.
"I was opposed to it then and I fought against it," Kircher said. "People want farmland to stay as farmland."
Ganas said one of the proposed school sites is a farm where sod is grown. "Is it better to sell sod or educate Exeter's children?" Ganas asked, rhetorically.
"Supervisor Dave Barbieri and I feel that education comes first," he said.
Kircher feels that since all other zoning districts in the township are open for school construction, there is no reason to put schools in agricultural zones. She said she and Starr had asked Bingaman to put the issue on the agenda because they had seen nearly 900 signatures of residents who didn't want schools to be built on the farmland the school district want to buy.
Kircher also said people don't want the congestion on Route 562.
"And once you bring water and sewer in for the schools, you open it for other development," Kircher said.
School district officials feel they have been blind-sided. "If the supervisors rescind the zoning change it's going to be a real set back for the district," Levan said.
District Superintendent Dr. Nicholas J. Corbo said the district has few alternative options. He said they can continue to pursue the original plan or start over.
Starting the process over could add a few years to the timeline. Corbo had hoped to open the first of the three schools by 2008.
Corbo noted that because of increased residential development and enrollment, the district is going to need to build more schools somewhere.
"We'll have a year there [at current buildings] where we will be horribly over crowded," Levan said.
Corbo said the delay alone would cost the district and taxpayers money because construction costs are expected to continue to rise. He said the district had looked at two other sites but because of rough terrain, wetlands incursion and limited size and location, the properties were deemed unsuitable.
Ganas agreed with the plight of the district. "Exeter is busting at the seams," he said.
But last week's vote is only the beginning of what could be a long process.
"It's not a done deal," Ganas said.
Kircher, Starr and Ciotti voted was to send the proposed change to the Berks County Planning Commission for review.
The next step will be to hold a public hearing on the proposed change, Township Manager Troy S. Bingaman said.
Ganas said it will take 30 to 45 days before the public meetings are held.
Corbo hopes the parents of the effected children will voice their concerns at the meetings.
The other option, Corbo noted, is to pursue the township's change of heart from a legal angle.
The district submitted a petition to get the approval to build on the Ritters Road site on Tuesday, Feb. 28. Corbo is hoping that last year's vote will remain legal until the board officially votes to rescind it.
According to the wording of the proposed ordinance that Bingaman faxed to the county, the change would not be effective until 10 days after the date of final passage.
"We're not sure where we are looking from the legal prospective," Corbo said. He said it may take a third party to decide.
uContact reporter Andrew McCue
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