Officials concerned about impact of new developments

Two large proposed residential developments could add 2,000 unexpected students to the Rock Hill school district -- students that school officials fear they will not have means to serve.

If the two developments, Celanese and Newland Communities, are approved, students would attend middle schools projected at beyond capacity in three years and the high schools in no fewer than five. The 2,000 students the developments could produce were not included in district growth projections. District enrollment for the coming school year is estimated at 17,583.

Celanese would be located at the site of the former Celanese plant and include at least 1,000 units and possibly up to 2,000. Newland has about 1,800 acres in the southeastern section of the district and plans 2,700 residential units.

The approximately 1,300 to 1,600 students at Newland alone would fill one elementary school, the better part of a middle school and one-quarter of a high school, said John Hair, the district's associate superintendent for finance and business. The Celanese development could produce 500 to 600 students, he added.

All affected government entities are gathering data on the impact of the developments. School board chairman Bob Norwood anticipates the district will be asked to weigh in on whether it will support the projects before the end of the summer.

"Even though we may get land and money to build the schools, our concern is how we will keep up with funds to operate the schools," Norwood said. "There are so many homes being built that will pay no operating taxes to the district. Right now, we're just concerned with opening three new schools in the next two years and finding funds to operate those."

If Newland and Celanese were built today, elementary school students in the Celanese community would attend Northside, which already is operating beyond capacity with mobile units. Most Newland elementary students would attend Belleview and some would attend Independence. Both of those schools are expected to be beyond capacity in 2010, even without the two new developments.

Students in both developments would go to Castle Heights Middle and Rock Hill High schools, both already beyond their capacity.

Another issue for the district is the locations. Both projects are situated at the edges of the district, making it difficult and expensive to provide necessary transportation and other accommodations.

While the Celanese development is being planned in cooperation with the city, Newland's proposal for development over 10 years is contingent on infrastructure and planned land use. Dave Lyle Boulevard would require an extension, and access across the Catawba River also would be necessary. There are no current funds or plans to extend Dave Lyle.

Also hindering Newland's proposal is the York County Land Use Study that indicates only minimal development should be allowed there to preserve the natural assets of that area.

Newland has agreed to set aside 35 acres for a school, and Celanese has agreed to set aside about 25.

"Where will we have means to operate the schools?" Hair asked.

The state's new Property Tax Relief law replaces homeowners' school operating taxes with a statewide 1-cent sales tax that will be distributed to schools by the state. Commercial and industrial property still will be subject to school operating taxes, and they and residential property owners still will pay taxes to pay for schools' capital expenses.

Foregone conclusion

School district officials throughout York County want amendments added to the law to address operating expenses for new schools in fast-growing areas.

Norwood points out that the developments' proposed commercial aspects would at least produce some operating revenue.

"Nothing that the school board says is going to stop development in this area," Norwood said. "I'm not sure I'm against this development. But whether or not those two projects go forward, development is going to continue in this area."