Franklin planning commission split on rezoning of high school land

Franklin City Schools’ request to rezone land at East Sixth and Anderson streets for practice fields and a small parking lot resulted in a deadlock before the city of Franklin’s Planning Commission on Wednesday night.

Only four of the seven Planning Commission members were present, and after a spirited discussion, they voted 2-2. The tie vote means the request will move forward to City Council without any recommendation, pro or con.

Absent from the meeting were commission members Christine Pirot, Mayor Brent Centers and Sarah Nathan. Centers would have had to recuse himself anyway, as he is employed by Conger Construction, the firm that built the adjacent new high school, according to City Manager Jonathan Westendorf.

Westendorf said he thinks City Council will introduce the rezoning request Monday and then vote on it July 1.

The Franklin City School District is seeking to transform the land where a Save-A-Lot grocery, another store and some residential properties once stood at the corner of East Sixth and Anderson streets. The district purchased the land in 2021 to eventually be used as part of the new high school campus. The former grocery was used as a warehouse for crews during the high school construction.

The schools’ goal is to turn it into a 100-car parking lot, plus athletic, band and physical education practice fields.

The land had been zoned commercial, but when City Council approved a new Downtown Comprehensive Master Plan in 2023, it received a new zoning designation of mixed use.

“It was unclear why it was zoned this way,” Franklin schools Superintendent Michael Sander said.

Sander said the school district wanted all of the high school property zoned the same way, as they were aware of the need for some space to create a buffer zone. He said the 2.7 acres would represent 11% of the high school campus. Sander said the proposed improvements would increase the school’s value.

Sander also told Planning Commission chair David Hopper that the district had been contemplating a parking lot and practice fields “for several years.”

Sander said the land would be used for band practice, a practice field for school sports and a parking lot, as well as being used for physical education and adaptive physical education classes for special needs children.

“This would be a detriment to the academic and extracurricular programs of the high school,” he said. “This is so important.”

School board member Bob Knipper said the zoning change would be a benefit to the community and that the board supports the city’s overall plan. Knipper also said it would be impractical for the band, physical education and special needs students to walk to Community or Dial Parks, as going to and from would eat up half of the classroom period.

“We need this facility,” he said.

Knipper also noted that the construction of the new high school has been a catalyst for the city’s current development efforts.

During the city’s presentation, consultant Keeghan White said the Downtown Master Plan approved in 2023 “was overwhelmingly supported by the public.” He said city staff recommended denial because proposed rezoning did not conform to the new downtown master plan and that the current zoning would not impede high school operations.

White also said the rezoning would impact future development by reducing the amount of developable land available; it would impact the value of abutting properties; and limit the opportunity for future mixed use development.

White said since the approval of the master plan when the parcels were rezoned to mixed use, there has not been any actual development or changes in the conditions “that would make conforming to the Downtown Franklin Master Plan impractical.” White said a zoning change would be counter to the land development plan.

After hearing from both sides, Planning Commissioners Jason Hall and Brian Rebholz moved and seconded a motion to approve the rezoning.

Hall said he believed the schools need the land for physical education and special needs children. Rebholz said the land belongs to the schools and that it made sense to have use of the land. He said “the new high school is a huge opportunity to generate foot traffic for the downtown district.”

Planning Commissioner and City Council member Paul Ruppert voted no on the rezoning, as did Commission Chair Hopper. Ruppert declined to say why he voted no, while Hopper said he voted against the rezoning because it did not meet all of the criteria.

Ruppert made a motion to deny the rezoning but did not receive a second.

After the meeting, Hopper said, “this was a difficult vote. The communication (between the city and school district) could be better.”

Hall said he hopes both sides can find a way to work the issue out.

School Board President Lori Raleigh said the district bought the land for one campus.

“I’m disappointed with the decision,” she said. “The 2-2 tie was not a coincidence. They are stalling what we want to do for kids. We felt the new high school would be a gateway for revitalization, but at every step we have a detour.”

Raleigh said there was no collaboration involved, and the district never received notice as an adjacent property owner.

She said the district “will be at every council meeting and that it will continue to do what’s right for kids.”

Franklin City Council next meets at 6 p.m. Monday, June 17 at the Franklin City Building, 1 Benjamin Franklin Way.

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