By Reggie Ellis
The Exeter City Council has tentatively scheduled Sept. 13 as the date it will decide whether or not to close Clarence Street for a proposed expansion of Lincoln Elementary School.
Superintendent Renee Whitson said that Lincoln needs to add more classrooms to the K-2 school in the near future. Adding classrooms within the school's current boundary would diminish playground and ball field areas. The school is landlocked surrounded by Highway 65 to the east, D Street to the west, Chestnut Street to the north and Clarence Street to the south. Also, the state may be leaning toward universal preschool in public education. A preschool facility in Exeter would logically be built on campus at the school.
City Administrator John Kunkel recommended against Exeter Union School District's proposal to close Clarence Street in June 2004 because of traffic congestion concerns. He also had concerns about a drive-thru business that was opening across the street with the understanding that Clarence would access the highway.
Kunkel, who is also the chief of police, presented a traffic study conducted by the Exeter Police Department and the Public Works Department of the intersection at D and Clarence streets on the Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday during the school year in April 2004. The intersection counted vehicles traveling on both D and Clarence streets at several key times during the day - before school, from 7:15-8:15 a.m.; at lunch time, from noon to 1 p.m.; after school, from 2-3 p.m.; and in the evening, from 5-6 p.m.
On average there was more traffic on D Street than Clarence Street. In the morning there was an average of 104 vehicles on D and 79 on Clarence. There was a daily average of 282 cars using Clarence between Highway 65 and D Street, and an average of 935 using D Street. Monday morning was the busiest time of day and Saturday morning had the least amount of traffic.
In all, 2,267 vehicles passed through the intersection during the three-day survey - 1,547 vehicles traveling on D Street and 720 traveling on Clarence. Kunkel told the council in 2004 that he "wouldn't feel comfortable until all the numbers were below triple digits."
In December of last year, the school district conducted their own traffic study. The survey counted cars traveling on Clarence between D and Highway 65 24 hours a day from Sunday, Dec. 17 through Saturday, Dec. 11. The highest traffic hour was from 2-3 p.m. with an average of 41 cars. The hour prior to school, 7-8 a.m., was close behind with an average of 40 cars. On average there were 328 cars using Clarence street throughout the week.
Fifty-four percent of respondents said they use the section of Clarence Street between D and the highway. Seven said they used it daily, six said they rarely used it, five said they used it twice a day, two said once a day and two others said they used it "often." Only two people reported using the street less than once a week. If the street were to be closed, those surveyed said they would use Chestnut (10), Firebaugh (6), D Street (8), E Street (4), Ash (11) and Pine (1) as an alternate route. Eleven said they had no opinion on what alternate route they might take.
While the average numbers were even higher than the city's, a survey of surrounding residents revealed a more positive outlook for the district. Of the 52 people who lived in the area, 34 were aware that Lincoln school needed to expand and 40 were aware that the district had requested that the City of Exeter close the adjoining section of Clarence. Forty-seven respondents (90%) said they would not be opposed to closing the street and 45 people (86%) said they would support the district's efforts to close it.
"I haven't seen any information that would change my recommendation to not close the street," Kunkel said.
Adding a new wrinkle to the discussion was the opening of Java Island, a drive-thru coffee shop at the corner of Clarence Street and Highway 65, on July 2. Co-owner Casey Barber said he was aware of the school district's interest when he purchased the business from property owner Sul Lakhani. "I didn't see anything happening so we went ahead with the business," he said in a July interview.
Kunkel said because the business owner had already gone through the Planning Commission process and the school had not made the city aware of its plan for expansion, that the council should not close the street.
But the school district claims it contacted the city nearly two years ago and had been discussing the move for at least eight years. In an interview in March 2004, Whitson said the district discussed the street's closure with former City Administrator Roy Chace. That conversation led to the district's purchase of a lot south of the school at the corner of D and Clarence streets on Nov. 18, 2002 in anticipation of the expansion. The Victorian style house - built circa 1904-1909 - that sat on the lot was purchased by Dr. Anne Hickey who relocated the home to Elberta Avenue in October 2003. The school district then paid to have the lot leveled and resurfaced.
"The school has no authority over whether or not to close a street," Whitson said. "The city council is the only entity with the authority to do so."
The school district was already planning to make an offer to purchase the Java Island property prior to the business opening. Whitson said if the street is closed, the district will negotiate with the property owner to purchase the land. If the two cannot agree on a price, Whitson said the school district will use its power of eminent domain - a government entity's right to take property for public use.
Whitson said the only options for expansion are to close a street or to build up. "Having a multi-story building is not unheard of but it would definitely be a paradigm shift for this district."