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Council votes on 3rd Avenue closure

By Staff | May 15, 2020

In a special meeting Wednesday evening, Rugby City Council members voted on a petition from the Rugby Public School district.

The district petitioned for the city to close a portion of Third Avenue Southwest that runs between Ely Elementary School and plots of land owned by the school district, and to reroute the alleyway on the adjacent city block north to Second Street Southwest. The council voted 7-1 to approve the closure and rerouting, with an easement stipulation for access to sewer lines and utilities.

School District Superintendent Mike McNeff explained the process started with the formation of a Citizens Committee to address growth and space concerns at Ely, and the committee felt it “evident” those issues could not be addressed without closure of the street.

“Can we agree that this is a good thing?” McNeff said of the growth at Ely.

In a handout detailing Frequently Asked Questions, the district addressed various topics, including modular classrooms, pickup/drop-off concerns, and changing education models.

Under modular classrooms or building a building on land to the west, the district said doing so would require students to cross the street multiple times a day, and in the winter students would need to get dressed in winter gear several times a day.

In the plan, rural bus students would be dropped off and picked up on the north side of the school, and parents would pick up and drop off their kids on the south side of the school. The district would also add a parking lot for district employees, and increase the size of the playground and shift it to the west side of the school.

In a chart detailing enrollment, Ely hit its highest point of enrolled students in 1990 with 393 students, and its lowest point in 2006 with 220 students. In 2017, the enrollment was at 322, and it increased by eight students the next year. Last year’s enrollment was at 313.

McNeff explained that Ely has offered full-time kindergarten since 2009 — before then kindergarten attended half days only. Due to classroom sizes and more personalized learning, grades 1, 2 and 5 had three classrooms in the 2019-20 school year, while other grades had two classrooms apiece. Special education needs have also increased, with a caseload of 101 students in 2019.

The committee also felt that with the maturity of fifth- and sixth graders, combined with exposure to older students and lack of open classrooms at Rugby High School that moving one or two grade levels over to the high school would not solve the overcrowding at Ely issue.

Ward 3 Councilman Joel Berg asked McNeff if the council approved the closure would the district close the street the next day. McNeff said the district would not close it the next day but would focus first on pickup and drop-off issues.

Ward 3 Councilman Frank LaRocque asked McNeff on the feelings of property owners in the area. According to the FAQ, the district met with “all impacted business owners” and all “were supportive of the street removal concept.” The district met with property owners on Oct. 4, 2018, and March 13, 2019.

Not all residents and business owners felt the same way Wednesday.

Rugby resident and business owner Jennifer Dockter said she had not been contacted as an affected resident and business owner; that the district did not meet with all property owners; and that no one from her neighborhood had been contacted to be part of the Citizens Committee. Dockter also cited potential safety concerns with the alley reroute.

“Seems to me the cart is being put before the horse,” Dockter said.

Terry Wentz said he was supportive of the school, but he was concerned about closing a street without an addition happening and would want to be sure an addition would happen.

McNeff said the addition would be subject to a vote, however the street closure issue would need to be decided.

In a letter, Rugby residents David and Deb Zwingel said while they weren’t opposed to the school’s proposed expansion project, an accessible and functional alleyway was necessary for neighborhood residents – one that would allow residents to enter and exit property without Highway 3 being the only access point.

“We can’t speak for other residents of our block, but we believe the Rugby Public School has made a good faith proposal to address our safety concerns by proposing an alternative exit. If the alternative alley is functional and accessible, then we are not opposed to the closure of the east end of our alley,” said the Zwingels in the letter.

In a letter, Rugby resident and retired Elementary instructor Margaret Stadum cited safety concerns along Second Street SW, environmental barriers, and fencing.

Rugby resident Jennifer Stewart said in a letter that she felt approving the vacation of the street and alley was “premature.” She felt the school should hold a public vote on whether or not to approve a build or construction that would require vacating the street.

Chapter 40-39-07 of the North Dakota Century Code gives authority to city governing bodies or appointed committees to investigate matters in petitions to vacate streets and alleys. After hearing testimony and evidence, or reports from the committee favoring approval of the petition, the city’s governing body can, by a resolution passed by a two-thirds vote of all members, declare streets and alleys vacated.

– Tribune Staff Report

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