By Jennifer Wohlleb
Buying property and building a new school are rare events for most school board members, so the ins and outs of property acquisition can be tricky.
The right amount of acreage, location, improvement expenses and utilities are among a few of the many things school boards have to consider.
“When you are trying to figure out a place to put a school building, it’s a lot of what I call common sense: what are your surroundings, how do you get to it, does it have a lot of basic infrastructure in place, and by that I mean water, sewer, electric, gas,” said Kay Kennedy with the Kentucky Department of Education, which must sign off on all property purchases.
Greg Dunbar, manager of KDE’s District Facilities Branch, said different parts of the state pose different opportunities and challenges.
“Kentucky is very varied geographically, and we have districts that have an abundance of flat land but may not have the necessary infrastructure,” he said. “You’ve got districts that don’t have any flat land and the cost of improvements and getting the infrastructure there is almost prohibitive.
“If the cost of the land and the site preparation is more than 10 percent of the total project budget, then it has to go the state board to get a special waiver.”
Because of that diverse geography, geotechnical investigations must be done on a proposed site.
“Typically what is done, a geotechnic investigation will go to at least bedrock, so that you know the nature of the soil for the surface to the bedrock,” Dunbar said. “In some areas of Kentucky where you have underlying limestone, there’s solution channels, caverns and karst geography, that was the cause of the collapse of the Corvette Museum in Bowling Green. We’ve got to look for that and we require a geotechnic investigation and report before we’ll sign off on something.”
Old mines also can be a problem, sometimes requiring districts to consult the state mine agency that maintains the maps of the underground mines.
“Even strip-mined areas are presumed problems,” Dunbar said. “And if the mineral rights have been stripped from the surface rights, then the regulation says you have to have a fee-simple title or be able to negotiate a forbearance agreement with the mineral owners (who agree to not mine that land in a way that would cause structural issues). And unfortunately, we do have a facility in the western Kentucky coal region on what you would call a fill site that was abandoned partway through construction. It has really caused us to look at sites very much more critically than might have been done in the past.”
Kennedy said setbacks like that have prompted more critical planning upfront, including transportation issues, such as access roads, lines of sight and bus and car traffic. KDE revised its construction regulations last year to require the state Transportation Cabinet to approve road entrances to these sites, which means KDE and transportation officials visit a site before approval is given.
“It just makes sense to have all of that addressed up front, where everybody knows that there is no room for, ‘oops,’” said, Kennedy, director of the Division of District Support. “I think it has caused, especially at the district level, folks to step back and really think about some things that you might have had a tendency to say, ‘We’ll deal with that later.’ And then when you get to the end of the project and there’s one lane in for 400 cars, you’re thinking, ‘What the heck.’”
She said it also can be helpful to get someone from outside the district to help with finding the right property. That’s why many districts choose to involve and architect or engineer as part of the process.
After working with a number of school districts, Ron Murrell, an architect with RossTarrant Architects, said he has learned some dos and don’ts.
For example, he said KDE’s minimum acreage recommendation – 5 acres plus 1 acre per 100 additional students at the elementary level, 10 acres plus 1 acre per 100 additional students at the middle and high school – is just that, a minimum.
“Too many times someone buys a 20-acre site and they go, ‘This is great’ and then you find out 8 acres is steeply sloped or there is a drainage way, creek or stream through the property that really impacts its usability,” he said. “Sometimes I think a larger area, even if it’s a little further out of town might be a better buy, in terms of having the room to regrade and locate a school with the proper orientation.”
Mike Smith, an architect with Sherman Carter Barnhart, said the minimum often is not enough when it comes to things like athletic fields and parking spaces.
“When KDE wrote those regulations, not as many people drove to school,” he said. “The other thing we’re seeing, particularly at the elementary level, are more people driving to school and dropping their kids off instead of putting them on the bus.”
“Minimum” can also be deceptive when it comes to costs.
“You can have a site that is a minimum purchase price but a tremendous development cost and you may do better to look at a site that is better developed, or already has adequate utilities there,” Murrell said. “There may be more up-front costs, but it’s the total cost that you want to be aware of.”
Smith said his company has a checklist of property considerations that is reviewed with clients.
“We have a property score sheet that we use that has all the different sorts of things to look at: the number of acres, room for expansion, development costs, does property need to be condemned, how close is water, sewer, fire (department). Based on our experience, we use that with our clients to go through and we rate the sites and you can take all the factors into account.”
Murrell said it’s never too early to get the process started, even if you don’t have an immediate use for a piece of land.
“You need to be on the lookout to acquire adjoining land to existing properties whenever you can,” he said. “We have had a couple of districts that have bought land that hasn’t even been on their facilities plan, but they bought the land and KDE allowed it because it adjoined existing property.”
Property values, board changes add complications
After a five-year search, the Spencer County school board voted recently to buy a piece of property for a future elementary school.
Board Chairwoman Jeanie Stevens called the unusually long process “quite an endeavor,” which ended with the board buying a piece of property it had tried to purchase earlier.
“It’s so difficult because people want so much more than the land is valued at,” she said. “That’s what made it most difficult for us. Maybe they think because it’s a government agency that we can give them whatever, but I don’t believe in that.”
After walking away the first time, the district was able to negotiate a better price with the seller after the land had sat on the market so long, Stevens said, and after a nearby piece of property sold, helping bring down the appraised value of the property the district wanted.
A predominantly rural county, a sewer system that did not reach far enough and the needed acreage, all added to the district’s struggles. Turnover on the board also slowed things down, she said.
“We had to go back and show everything to the new board members that previous board members had already learned,” Stevens said. “I would definitely recommend keeping a log of everything and keep it all together in one place. This time we had three new board members who hadn’t been to any of the properties we had looked at in the last few years, so we had to go back and show them everything. It just made everything a little more difficult.”