Bethlehem Central School District and School’s Out, Inc. are facing an uphill battle when it comes to finalizing the sale of 90 Adams Place.
On Wednesday, Feb. 20, school district officials went before the Bethlehem Zoning Board of Appeals to argue the need for a variance on which the transaction hinges. Terresa Bakner, a partner at the firm Whiteman, Osterman and Hanna, spoke on behalf of the district.
The area in question is zoned residential, but the building was built in the neighborhood before the town had a zoning statute. Bakner said since the property was always in use as either the town library or, since 1931, by the school district, it is understandable that the town has never made contingency plans in case ownership changed.
“The school district is not out there to make money like a commercial operation. What they have is a financial responsibility … to not waste school assets,” Bakner said. “They are looking at this not to make a killing, but to make a reasonable return on investment on the fair market value of the property and to stop having on their rolls a property … which they are no longer using.”
But to obtain a use variance, the district must prove a lack of return on investment, that the hardship to the property is unique, that the use variance would not alter the potential character of the neighborhood and the alleged hardship was not self-created.
The district had previously applied for an adaptive reuse interpretation, claiming that a variance would not be needed because the property would still be used for educational purposes. Town code enforcement said they believed the before and afterschool operations of School’s Out would fall under a childcare facility and is not specifically an educational institution.
Finding buyer difficult
In December, the BC Board of Education accepted an offer from School’s Out to buy 90 Adams Place for $475,000. The 6,850-square-foot property had been on the market for nearly a year with a $650,000 asking price, but the price was dropped to $575,000 after little interest was shown in the building.
The building was vacated by staff last April and has since been “mothballed,” meaning the facility’s power has been turned off and the thermostat turned down. It has cost about $8,000 per year for basic heating and maintenance since then. District officials said companies had scouted the building with an eye towards converting it to office space, but they felt it would take too much effort. The property is also too large to reasonably be turned into the site of a house.
School’s Out is looking to move because they need more space than where they are leasing now, at a storefront on Delaware Avenue. About 80 children would attend programs before and after school, and during the summer. Five to seven buses would be dropping off children for about 10 to 15 minutes each day during those two time periods, according to School’s Out staff. Parents would also be dropping their children off and picking them up before and after school.
Concerns hinge on traffic, character
A traffic study conducted by Creighton Manning Engineering found that about six parents would be dropping off students at any given time and the increase of traffic would be about one car every two minutes during the peak morning and evening hours. Much of the information presented was provided to the firm by School’s Out.
The zoning board later asked for an independent traffic study to be done at the school district’s expense.
The conversion plans call for a play area to be established and fenced in at the back of the property. Several parking spots would also be removed. School’s Out officials have a verbal agreement with the nearby church for their staff to park in the church’s parking lot. They said they are working to get a written agreement in place.
A public hearing was also held on Wednesday. Of the nearly 40 people in attendance at the meeting, only four publicly gave their opinions on the project. All those speaking were against it, but members of the ZBA said one woman wrote a letter in favor of the plan.
“Allowing School’s Out to operate a business in our residential neighborhood would change its character and create unsafe conditions, not only for the children at School’s Out, but also for the residents in our neighborhood,” said Adams Street resident Stephen Malinowski.
In an eight-page statement, Malinowski detailed why he believed the neighborhood would change due to increased traffic, why the parking situation is unsafe, why the property should be sold to an owner that would produce taxes for the town and why the quality of life for current residents would diminish.
“Property owners in the neighborhood, especially those located adjacent to the property, will have their quiet enjoyment use of their property threatened as School’s Out plan to build a playground less than 10 feet from the property line,” he said.
Resident Brent Yanulavich said the move would destroy the unique character of old Delmar and he asked the board to “think long and hard about the decision, as it will affect many families.”
Steve Gravel, of Adams Place, said the move might harm property values. He said his family wouldn’t have moved to the neighborhood 10 years ago if he knew a childcare facility would be operated down the street. He said if School’s Out makes the move, his children would no longer be allowed to ride their bikes after school because the increased traffic may cause unsafe conditions.
The Zoning Board also ordered further environmental reviews. If a variance is granted, the project would still need to go through a site plan review with the town’s Planning Board.