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Fielding a debate on District 428 land swap

DeKalb resident Bessie Chronopoulos talks Monday to news media and residents opposed to School Board 428's plan to swap Kiwanis Park land with land a developer owns near DeKalb High School.
DeKalb resident Bessie Chronopoulos talks Monday to news media and residents opposed to School Board 428's plan to swap Kiwanis Park land with land a developer owns near DeKalb High School.

DeKALB – Dozens of DeKalb residents braved the cold Monday to voice their opposition to DeKalb School District 428’s plan to trade Kiwanis Park for land near DeKalb High School owned by ShoDeen Construction.

“It’s a unique facility that affords over 700 children, including others in the community ... a place to recreate,” said Bessie Chronopoulos, the former DeKalb mayor who lives near the park, which is next to Huntley Middle School.

If the swap goes through, the district will receive 41.86 acres near the high school that can be used for future expansions. ShoDeen eventually plans to build homes and commercial outlets on the land.

The residents present, however, were concerned about the people and organizations that use the park – including DeKalb AYSO, a local youth soccer league with more than 750 players. They said that both the developer and the school board have not been open about the process.

The park is located near Huntley Middle School at the corner of South Fourth Street and Fairview Drive.

Chronopoulos, who organized Monday’s gathering at Kiwanis Park, and other concerned residents are planning to attend local government meetings to speak out against the deal. In addition to the school board, they’ll be targeting the DeKalb Park District, DeKalb City Council and the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission.

Another park neighbor, Linda Buhr, said she felt blindsided by news of the land swap deal.

“Being a homeowner in ­DeKalb for my whole life practically, I think that’s totally unfair,” Buhr said. “It’s not fair to the area. It’s not fair to the community.”

D-428 Superintendent Jim Briscoe said the district is still reviewing the legal language of the land swap deal with its attorney. Once that’s done, he said, the deal will be discussed openly and then a vote could be taken.

The school board is meeting at 7 p.m. today, but it is not slated to discuss the land swap. However, the members present at Kiwanis Park on Monday said they would attend it.

The district hopes to have an agreement done by December. Otherwise, the district will have to start paying $42,000 a year to ShoDeen.

When the school district was buying land for the new high school, it made a credit deal with Macom Development worth $1.05 million so it could buy the land at a lower rate.

The school board and Macom agreed that if Macom did not develop on the roughly 30-acre property around the high school, the district would pay 4 percent of the $1.05 million credit – or $42,000 – a year starting in 2013.

Now that ShoDeen holds the property, that agreement is still in effect. The land swap would free the district from paying that $42,000.

If the land swap is approved, ShoDeen would pay the district $654,511 as reimbursements for public improvements that were made when DHS was built. ShoDeen also would not have to pay impact fees on its development either until the district receives 600 students from the developer’s Fairview or Irongate communities, or for seven years, whichever comes first.

School officials have said the school district has no use for the land near Huntley Middle School, while the property near the high school could be used for future expansion.

Chronopoulos doesn’t buy those arguments. There should be no need for an expansion at the high school after a $12 million referendum that helped build an $80 million building, which opened in 2011.

“We were told a few years ago when the referendum was passed that that would take care of us for the next several years,” she said. “We’d like some answers to that.”

Briscoe said the land swap has nothing to do with the new high school, which currently houses 1,800 students. However, he said no official can predict what the school’s needs will be 10 to 20 years from now.

“There’s also a potential that [the land near the high school] can be used for a variety of reasons,” Briscoe said, including additional parking or athletic fields.

ShoDeen Construction President Dave Patzelt presented the DeKalb Park District with two development proposals. The difference between the two plans was how much open space they had; in one proposal, 25 percent of the 41-acre parcel would be used for park space.

“What I said was, ‘Do you, park district, prefer a plan with more park and less improvements, [or] less park and more improvements?’ ” Patzelt said, adding that improvements could include playgrounds and jungle gyms.

Patzelt’s development plan includes a stretch of commercial development along South Fourth Street, which he said matches similar development plans in the area.

Another resident, Darlene Larson, lamented the potential loss of park space.

“The use for this land has grown every year for the past 20 years that I’ve been here,” Larson said. “And I don’t understand why we’d get rid of this. I have no idea.”

Patzelt and Norden Gilbert, DeKalb AYSO’s regional commissioner, have said DeKalb AYSO can use the park for its 2013 season, as any development would take at least a year of bureaucratic work before translating into construction.

Briscoe said the school district has marked out where the youth soccer league could play. He identified fields at Lincoln Elementary School, Founders Elementary School and HMS. Gilbert said the alternatives are not as good as Kiwanis, but they are workable.

“It wouldn’t be as good as Kiwanis because we’d be spread out, but it’s doable,” Gilbert said, noting the proximity of the three schools.

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