Highway district vote imperils Prairie school

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  • Shanley

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    Cook

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    Morrisroe

  • Shanley

  • 1

    Cook

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    Morrisroe

Cd’A OKs annexation

COEUR d’ALENE — The Lakes Highway District’s decision to tap the brakes on approving permitting for the Coeur d’Alene School District’s proposed new school did not deter the Coeur d’Alene City Council from approving the school district’s annexation request for the property.

Council members voted unanimously Tuesday night to approve annexation of the roughly 7-acre property along Prairie Avenue, currently in the county, into the city.

Sean Holm, the city’s senior planner, recommended the council approve the school district’s annexation request. He said the decision by the Lakes Highway District commissioners to table a permit request by the school district did not preclude the council from moving forward with the annexation.

“We are not approving a school site, yet,” Holm said. “That will come at the time of the (building) permit.”

A community education special use permit has already been approved by the city for the property.

Holm noted that multiple agencies are involved in providing approvals and permits for construction of the new school. He said that while the city has no power to add a condition to the annexation agreement, city staff recommends the agreement includes language that encourages all the groups to “get to the table and play well together.”

Megan O’Dowd, the school district’s attorney, gave the district’s presentation of the annexation request and mentioned Lakes Highway District commissioners’ reticence to approve the school district’s request for an encroachment permit.

“The discussion is not over,” O’Dowd said. “It’s just been tabled.”

COEUR d’ALENE — The prospects for a new elementary school building on Prairie Avenue hit a major speed bump Monday night when Lakes Highway District commissioners voted to table a permit request for the new school.

Last May, the district bought the school site, situated on 7.1 acres on Prairie Avenue between Ramsey Road and Atlas Road, to create more classroom space for its booming elementary student population. The move followed a contentious, months-long debate on the school board about where such a school should be built. Monday’s decision by the highway district commissioners threatens to force the district to further delay creating that classroom space, past the fall 2020 timeframe they had recently settled on.

School district officials minced no words in their reaction.

“We are deeply disappointed and frustrated by this turn of events,” said Coeur d’Alene School District Superintendent Steve Cook. “Our community needs a new school to relieve growing pressure on our existing schools and to accommodate rapid housing growth. Our ability to potentially open a school on Prairie Avenue within the next two years is now greatly diminished.”

“The school district is facing a narrow window in its school construction timeline,” wrote school district spokesman Scott Maben in a press release Tuesday. “In order to open the new elementary school in September 2020, the district will need to move forward with architectural plans and construction bids in the next few months and break ground next spring.”

But Lakes Highway District Director Eric Shanley said other factors need thorough consideration before moving forward with school construction along Prairie Avenue. In an email sent just hours before Monday’s highway district meeting, Shanley asked the district’s commissioners to consider whether they wanted Prairie to become more of a city street with low rates of speed, or “should Prairie Avenue continue to function as a high-speed urban arterial with the primary focus of its use to efficiently move traffic from destination to destination, city-city, highway-highway. Under this option, should access be limited to current intersections and traffic volumes? If the answer to this question is yes, should the new school access be limited to internal streets with no access to Prairie?”

In an interview Tuesday with The Press, Shanley elaborated.

Prairie Avenue is a high-speed urban arterial that sees 20,000 cars zipping by at 45 mph on a daily basis, he said. Building an elementary school with playgrounds accessible to pedestrians, and with parents potentially stopping to drop off or pick up kids on the side of the road, is an invitation to casualties, he said.

“I have great concern about someone crossing the road and getting hit by traffic,” Shanley said. “We see it at our other schools — parents stopping on the side of road, letting out kids on the sidewalk. That is very concerning. Not to say it can’t be done, but it’s why we’re taking a good, solid look at this.”

At the suggestion of Shanley and Kootenai Metropolitan Planning Organization Executive Director Glenn Miles, LHD commissioners voted unanimously to table the school district’s requests Monday night to give local transportation experts time to examine the proposals more thoroughly. Included in the suggestion was the impact the elementary school would have on the commuting public, said Shanley. By offering access to the school off Prairie at Moselle Drive and installing a traffic light there, the normal speed limit to the west of Moselle would drop from 45 to 35 mph.

That in turn would create a precedent which could lead to another traffic signal to the west of Moselle at North Courcelles Parkway, and the speed limit in that section of Prairie also dropping to a normal speed limit of 35 mph, said Shanley. He anticipated that all of Prairie Avenue from Atlas Road to Ramsey Road could drop to 35 mph. Even part of Prairie west of Atlas Road could drop to that speed, he said. All of that would be in addition to the school zones that would be established around the school, which would drop the speed limit during those times of day to around 25 mph, he said.

Coeur d’Alene School Board Chairman Casey Morrisroe said the delay was unexpected and that it will likely nix plans for the Prairie school for now.

“I was shocked to learn how things unfolded with Lakes Highway District last night,” Morrisroe said Tuesday. “The school district worked hard to bring forth a proposal that mitigated all traffic impacts raised in the required traffic study at no cost to Lakes Highway District. To my knowledge, the highway district had not previously indicated the need nor desire to evaluate the entire 10-mile Prairie corridor.

“We will continue to try and understand their action but barring an immediate reconsideration, this latest wrinkle and delay will more than likely remove the Prairie site from consideration for this planned elementary school construction project.”

KMPO’s Miles told The Press there’s a bigger issue at stake.

“To date, local jurisdictions using local, state and federal funds have spent on the order of $11 million to improve Prairie Avenue from Ramsey Road to Meyer Road as a higher volume, higher speed, restricted access arterial,” Miles said. The slowdown in approving plans for the school district is not then an isolated question, but “a bigger policy decision about whether to preserve and protect multi-million dollar transportation infrastructure investments for the purposes they were built,” he said.

According to the recorded minutes of an Aug. 27 meeting which Cook attended, highway district commissioner Diane Fountain expressed concerns about the traffic signal and delays it might produce for drivers, Shanley said. Shanley also said that he has heard complaints from the public about why some local transportation decisions have been made without much public input. The Lakes Highway District board thus felt it was important to get input from the public on this issue, he said.

“They didn’t want to say no, but they want to be able to make an informed decision based on a bigger picture look at what’s happening there,” Shanley said.

Getting that big-picture look at the transportation situation on the Prairie Avenue corridor is going to take a few months. Shanley chairs the Kootenai County Area Transportation team and will put this question on its Nov. 20 meeting agenda. He anticipated that a KCAT subcommittee of city engineers, representatives from nearby highway districts, ITD, and other agencies would study the issue and bring its recommendations back to KCAT in December. The recommendations would then go before the KMPO board of directors at their Jan. 10, 2019, meeting.

“The memo would describe the situation of the corridor, subcommittee findings and recommendation for KMPO board adoption, and be recommended for consideration to individual agencies,” Shanley said.

It would provide informed guidance that local elected officials could then choose to heed or ignore, he said.

Meanwhile, school superintendent Cook said the district isn’t giving up.

“We still feel strongly this is an appropriate site, and we remain hopeful we can find a resolution in time to begin building in 2019,” he said. “We are undeterred and will continue to do what the public and our families expect of us.”

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