Tallmadge — The fate of a gate at Elm Avenue was among the issues raised by residents, as city officials considered plans for the city’s new schools.

While some residents want a gate reinstalled, the proposal headed to City Council for consideration purposely omits a gate. The Tallmadge mayor, fire chief and school district superintendent are among those advocating abandoning the gate, suggesting that allowing access from both East Avenue and Elm Avenue would enhance safety. 

Sol Harris/Day Architecture, on behalf of Tallmadge City Schools, has submitted a site plan and conditional zoning certificate application for redevelopment of 40-plus acres at 484 East Ave. as new elementary and middle schools. The site plan indicates how the structures will be placed on the property, which is located in an R-3 residential zone. Schools are considered conditionally permitted uses in an R-3 zoning district.

The conditional zoning process requires a recommendation from the Planning and Zoning Commission to City Council. After lengthy discussion Sept. 7, with input from many residents, the commission has recommended Council approve the site plan and conditional zoning certificate request with the condition that school and city officials work together to design and construct a cul-de-sac at the north end of Elm Avenue, which can accommodate a semi; presently there is a gate there which school officials unlock during school hours to allow traffic to flow through the middle school site and exit onto Elm, which is a dead-end street. Many Elm Avenue residents say their street is being used as a shortcut from East Avenue to Southeast Avenue during school hours — a situation they fear will worsen without a gate.

North Elm resident Kim Smith said he is opposed to the idea of opening up the street to 24-hour vehicle access. "Our neighborhood is a private neighborhood," Smith said, "a beautiful wooded area," without sidewalks and with few lights. Saying Elm has been a dead-end street for the four decades he’s lived there, Smith said he wants to keep some sort of gate and suggested city officials explore the possibility of an automatic one. 

Larry Andrews, another North Elm resident, said he, too, disapproves of taking out the gate. Andrews told city planners he hopes to "preserve the unique nature of the neighborhood." 

According to Dreama Smith, there is a lot of traffic that cuts through the middle school campus and exits onto North Elm during school hours. Smith said she and other Elm Avenue residents have been accommodating to the school district by granting vehicle access onto their street from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays and also for football games. "But I don’t think anyone on Elm wanted to become a cut-through from East to Southeast Avenue," Smith said.

Jeremiah Isley of East Avenue said he is concerned with the possibility of increased traffic and noise day and night, as well as the loss of privacy.

Ward 4 Councilmember Carol Kilway said the Elm Avenue residents she’s spoken with have lived there from 10 to 40 years. "They’re gracious to have the gate there so that during the school year during school hours, they allow people to come in and out but during non-school hours  … they really appreciate the quiet, calm of a dead-end street," Kilway reported, "And they would really, really like to keep a gate of some sort."

However, the presence of the gate does not come without problems, according to some neighbors.

Cathy Pawlowski said she has lived in a house on Elm next to the fence for 20 years. "If you don’t live in one of the last four houses by the gate, you do not realize the impact we have with that gate," Pawlowski reported. While she sympathizes with her neighbors who want to keep the neighborhood the way it is — a sentiment she shares — Pawlowski said it’s easier for her when the gate is open. She spoke of cars turning around in her driveway at all hours or driving through her yard when they find the gate closed.

Bruce Wagner said he’s lived near the gate since 1979 and found it necessary to keep a key to it nearby.  "I’ve let school buses in, semis, garbage trucks, snow plows, you name it," Wagner said, adding, "I’ve let them in because they’re trapped."

Fire Chief Michael Passarelli described the padlocked gate as "a hazard" and "a poor idea back whenever that happened." Saying his concern is the safety of the school children and staff, the fire chief said he tells his firefighters to never count on that gate being open despite the fact it’s a faster route to the school from Fire Station #1."The more ways I’ve got into this facility, the better I like it," Passarelli reported, adding at minimum he wants two. 

As the city’s safety director, Tallmadge Mayor David G. Kline said he doesn’t think the gate should be there. He said he favors the creation of a cul-de-sac at the end of Elm Avenue, with a driveway curb cut off of it for school district use.

"The gate is really not helpful to us," Tallmadge City Schools Superintendent Jeff Ferguson stated. Steve Wood, the chief operating officer for the schools, told the Tallmadge Express the fence creates daily safety and operational issues for the school, visitors, and residents.

"We support the concept of a cul-de-sac at the end of Elm Avenue," Wood wrote in a Sept. 12 email to the Express. "From Elm, the plan creates a driveway that loops around the buildings, which will help deter cut-through traffic while making it easier for residents to come to the buildings," Wood writes. "This plan also increases safety as it makes it easier for emergency services to get to our buildings without any hindrance such as a gate."

Background

Currently, there are two elementary schools and one middle school in Tallmadge. In the November 2016 General Election, voters approved a 3.9-mill academic bond issue to consolidate three elementary schools into two buildings on the middle school campus and a 0.9 mill-athletics bond issue to move the athletic facilities from the middle school campus to the high school campus. The North Canton-based Sol Harris/Day architecture firm will design two buildings, one for kindergarten through grade five and the other for grades six through eight, which will be constructed on the current middle school campus. The Ohio School Facilities Commission has agreed to pay 31 percent or $14 million of that $45 million cost. The school district will raise its share of the expense — $31 million —through the 3.9-mill academic bond issue.

The superintendent said consolidating buildings on one campus will mean savings in terms of operational and transportation expenses. He also said the new buildings will boast state-of-the-art security, facilitate technology use and incorporate flexible classroom spaces to permit collaborative learning.

Since the middle school campus is located in a residential area and the school district has been granted conditional zoning within it, Wood said the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission has "more influence" over what the school district’s ultimate plan will look like. He also noted district officials’ desire to continue to operate Tallmadge Middle School while the two new buildings are being constructed limits the location of the new schools on the site.

An approximate timeline for construction of the elementary and middle school buildings, provided by the Tallmadge City School District, is as follows: phased design construction from March 2017 through spring 2018; early site work, fall 2017; elementary and middle school building construction, spring 2018 through fall 2019; building openings may have to be phased, with the new middle school opening in August 2019 and the elementary school opening mid-year.

The athletic bond issue, which does not involve the OSFC, will cover a portion of the cost of moving the outdoor athletic facilities for high school sports from the middle school campus to the high school campus. What’s eyed is a new stadium and baseball and softball complexes at an estimated cost between $10 million and $12 million. The bond issue will generate $7 million, which the superintendent says is enough to move all varsity athletics to the high school campus. Funding also will be sought from private donors.

Email: ewalsh@recordpub.com

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