After months of gleaning through a dozen different plans to expand parking and improve student safety, the Wadena-Deer Creek school board unanimously brought forth a plan that includes vacating a portion of Dayton Ave. on the south side of the elementary school.
Upon bringing that plan to a public hearing at the Wadena City Council Tuesday, Sept. 11, several changes were encouraged after several property owners near the affected area strongly opposed the plan presented. After hearing comments, council members tabled making a decision, likely making their decision at the next regular meeting.
Speaking during the public hearing was Greg Anderson, who owns a home near the school many know for it's "Christmas in Wadena" displays. Anderson opposed vacating Dayton, stating that he has been living at his home for 43 years and has not witnessed any accidents involving school traffic and students, indicating that the school safety aspect is not an issue. Upon asking Wadena Police Chief Naomi Plautz if she was aware of any accidents she said she would have to research that. Elementary Principal Louis Rutten said there have been close calls.
"By the grace of God we have not had anyone hit," Rutten said.
Anderson didn't want to see a street closed down 365 days a year, when he said it's only used by the school less than half that time. He also felt that the use was low considering peak use was an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon.
Wadena-Deer Creek transportation director Greg Kramer replied that the bus pickup area sees use throughout day from different students, including special needs.
Anderson listed a handful of residents that he said signed a paper indicating their opposition to closing a portion of Dayton Ave. Mayor George Deiss stated that he personally spoke with a number of those residents and at least a couple said they would not have signed it had they known that there was going to be additional parking made available with the school's plan. Anderson insisted they were shown the plans and they understood them.
Anderson, like all those who commented, said that student safety was very important, but he felt there has to be a better way that does not involve shutting a street down year round.
"Vacating Dayton Street is absolutely ridiculous," Anderson said. "We pray that the city does not shut the street down because it will adversely affect the citizens. There's got to be a better way."
When asked by council members what his main opposition to the school plan was, he stated that there just wasn't enough parking, but vacating a street was a last resort.
He promoted a plan prepared by another nearby resident Amos Self. Self has lived near the school for the last 12 years and agreed that there should be a way to make it safer and open more parking without closing the street. He also stated that if the current setup is dangerous, then people should be ticketed for driving in areas closed to public traffic.
Neighborhood vs. School plans
Self indicated he was not an engineer, but he hoped his plan would make sense. It was presented showing a parking area covering the entire area made available by the removal of the two homes this year. That parking area would be available to staff and visitors at all hours, providing over 55 spaces. The opinion of the school architect was that it appeared there would only be about 40 parking spaces with the neighborhood plan. The neighborhood plan kept the playground in the same area, it allowed for two-way traffic between 3rd and 4th Street on Dayton Ave. that allowed school buses and delivery trucks to enter a one way at 3rd Street and head east exiting unto 2nd St. SW. This plan promoted two way traffic on a portion of Dayton, provides more parking than now, keeps Dayton and alley open, designated a parent drop off area separate from the bus drop off, greatly reduced reconstruction costs, reduced impact of underground utilities and uses current roads for bus turn around freeing up parking.
In response to the positive points to the neighbor plan, school architect Steve Schilke from Obermiller Nelson Engineering was present but responded by email previously.
He indicated that the school's plan to move the playground to where the Kids Club house previously say was in order to separate the playground from the delivery access road. That is not achieved with the neighborhood plan. The playground move also places a buffer between vehicle traffic and residents to the south, Schilke wrote. Schilke said that while the neighborhood plan provides around 40 after-hours spaces, the school plan provides 74.
Schilke agreed that the neighborhood plan allowed for easy direct in and out traffic for buses, that it would greatly reduce reconstruction costs, and it would have less impact on underground utilities.
WDC Superintendent Lee Westrum presented on the plan to vacate Dayton Ave. saying that the current setup has never been ideal.
The school's plan puts field turf in the spot where the Bottemiller home once sat. Dayton Ave. would become an entrance for the large parking area(what is now the playground area on the southeast side of the school), able to hold 13 buses for pickup and drop off of students during school hours, it would be only open for buses during school hours. After hours, it could hold up to 75 vehicles. It would also create a delivery entrance off this parking lot. And it would move the playground to the location of the former Kids Club home and a portion of the vacated Dayton Ave.
"Our main objective was student safety," Westrum said.
Westrum said a nice part of the planned closure created a parking area that would provide additional public parking spaces outside of school hours.
Westrum said he understands the concerns of the neighbors and pledged that the school would continue to be a good neighbor. He also indicated that the school would like to see 20 cut in spaces on Fourth Street along the school providing more space for staff parking.
Also speaking in opposition to the school plan was Craig Folkestad, who had concerns about the buses being able to turn around in the school's proposed plan. Kramer said there would be plenty of room for turning around. Folkestad asked about when this construction would happen, which was planned for the spring after school ended for the year, according to Westrum. Folkestad said that meant the city had time to think this over before making a decision. He encouraged them to reconsider, but said he was not opposed to vacating Dayton.
Self said his main reasons for opposing the school's plan was that his plan offered more parking and safety, without closing Dayton. It also offered more of a buffer between the school and residents.
"Don't make it so inconvenient for those living there," Self said. He felt the school was encroaching into the current residential area.
After hearing from the public, Wadena city council members shared some thoughts, most seemed to defend the school's plan over the neighborhood plan. Jessie Gibbs asked about all the plans the school created, wondering which one offered the best safety for students. Westrum said the school's current proposed plan was the best. Plautz agreed that this plan was the best she had seen in terms of traffic safety.
"We can't have any mingling of traffic and school bus traffic," Plautz said. "The school has the opportunity to do this now and do this the right way."
Council member Deb Wiese said she likes the idea of moving the playground for the safety of the children. She recalled dropping her children off in the bus area, calling it a "mad house."
Mayor George Diess indicated that he and others were not rushing into a decision as they have been thinking about a plan since before the referendum was approved for the school construction project last year. He asked for a motion on the item, which the board agreed to table until the next council meeting. Diess wanted to hear from council member Bruce Uselman who was not present at the meeting. Others wanted more time to think about the plans.
The next regular city council meeting is planned for 5 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 9.
If you have any questions concerning the project, call 218-631-7707.