Click here to see how the Davidson Board of Adjustment voted.
DAVIDSON – After an extensive search, Davidson Green School co-founder Jennifer Jakubecy thought she had found a perfect place for her innovative environmentally conscious school: a 3,370 square-foot house on South Main Street that backs up to an extensive natural area.
Town of Davidson Planning Manager Ben McCrary agreed; because the house was in the town’s “village infill” planning zone, which allows for residential and civic uses, he OK’d the renovation project without any action by the town’s Planning Board or Board of Commissioners.
But after the school bought the house and just before the school year began, nearby resident John R. Burgess hired a lawyer and filed an appeal to block the project, forcing the school to open in a church where co-founder Kathleen McIntyre’s husband is assistant pastor.
Thus the stage is set for what is expected to be the biggest show in town Monday night in Davidson Town Hall.
That’s when the rarely called-upon Davidson Board of Adjustment – it last met in January 2009 – makes a decision after hearing the sworn testimony of town officials, school representatives, and Burgess and a cadre of like-minded neighbors.
The board will have to choose between two interpretations of the town of Davidson zoning code at its 7 p.m. meeting Monday in Davidson Town Hall, 216 South Main St.
McCrary’s argument will be fairly straightforward, if an interview with him is any barometer.
“The town’s code allows for this kind of thing in that area,” McCrary said.
“The approval process is administrative. The neighbors heard about it; we had the neighbors come in for a meeting, and they expressed a disinterest in having a school in that neighborhood, but not the level of detail in the appeal. But it is in village infill, it is allowed by the code, and it was my decision, in accordance with the code, to approve it.”
The argument by Jakubecy, the spokesperson for the school, is more difficult to pin down. She declined to comment for this story.
But in previous Mecklenburg Times stories, she has boasted about the suitability of the 1.5-story home at 511 S. Main St. to be a private school dedicated to teaching 36 children about the ABCs of horticulture and the math of natural processes.
The designer she hired for the project, architect David Malushizky of the Davidson office of the St. Louis-based Lawrence Group, has pointed out that while the renovation will meet Mecklenburg County code requirements for a school, the exterior renovations will be minimal, to preserve the residential character of the vintage home.
As for the argument put forward by Burgess in his highly technical eight-page appeal, it is a bit more convoluted.
Burgess admits that the village infill zoning allows for civic buildings, but he argues that the house owned by the school does not meet the town’s definition of a “civic building,” as described elsewhere in the zoning code, and is therefore a “nonconforming structure,” according to the application for an appeal filed with the town.
To be a civic building, the code says, the structure must be two stories – and, Burgess argues, the house’s finished attic and basement, both of which will be used by the school, don’t count.
Civic buildings must also have a “scale and architectural sophistication” to “match their civic importance and complement the best of Davidson’s existing civic buildings, such as the Davidson Public Library,” according to the code.
The application goes on to quote chapter and verse of the Davidson zoning ordinance, noting that the house does not meet several requirements concerning curbed parking space dimensions, the number of evergreens in the landscaping and the absence of screening for trash and recycling containers.
But the point, Burgess said in an interview, is not that he and the other residents in the area necessarily want the Davidson Green School to tear down the house and construct a building that would match the description of a civic-use structure.
The point, Burgess said, is that only the town’s elected Board of Commissioners or the appointed Board of Adjustment can grant variances or modify the zoning code to allow the house to be used as a school. He said that because the decision was made administratively and without a hearing, his and his neighbors’ input was not taken into account.
“The town is bending over backward to promote this – I think it’s a political correctness type thing,” Burgess said. “It’s all ‘noble’ and ‘holy’ because it’s a ‘green’ school. You know, ‘How dare you oppose this?’ We were told that there was nothing we could do” to prevent the school from renovating the house and moving in.
The larger goal, Burgess said, is to try to preserve what is left of the residential character of South Main Street.
“You go back 20 years or so and there were 22 houses on this street,” Burgess said. “Now there are 10. We have invested our money in this neighborhood, and we don’t want to lose that residential feel of a group of single-family homes.
“It just doesn’t fit well in our neighborhood, which was developed in the early 1960s with three-quarter acre lots, ranch houses. It was practically out in the country then.”
As for the proposed school’s natural setting, Burgess said: “It’s a drainage ditch filled with poison ivy and scrub.” But he also allowed that the landscaped part of the property “is a nice lot.”
Dawn Blobaum, assistant town manager, defended McCrary’s administrative decision.
“From our point of view, the school can do this,” said Blobaum, an architect. “It is a planning area where you can do civic buildings.”
Burgess said he hopes one subject does not come up at the meeting: The office of his architecture firm is in his house.
Asked if that use of his residence might violate the feel of a single-family neighborhood, Burgess replied: “I’d rather not talk about that. Somebody might come and get me.”