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Sago Properties II mediation stirs up school board meeting

Oct 25th, 2013 | 0

By ALICIA LEONARD

The Walton County School Board(WCSB) met for a regularly scheduled meeting on Oct. 15 at 5 p.m.

On the agenda were items pertaining to agreements and contracts, personnel recommendations, architectural contracts and a mediation agreement over property located near Walton High School that has allegedly suffered damages due to rain drain off from the school property, according to mediators.
The board moved to approve the opening agenda before them and minutes from past meeting unanimously. All members of the board were present.
Walton County School Superintendent Carlene Anderson announced to the board the district was up to 8,648 students enrolled for this year.
WCSB Chairman Mark Davis called for public comments and DeFuniak Springs resident Harley Henderson approached the board. Henderson asked the board to reconsider the remodeling and expansion of Walton Middle School and consider moving the school to another site due to the traffic congestion buses and parents caused during drop off and pick up times for students.
“I live adjacent to the school and have watched over the years as it grew. Neighborhood schools were good for a number of years, but now it’s obsolete. Very few children walk to school today and because of this, this has created a traffic problem in our area. Crescent Street, which is on the north side of the school is very narrow. When school lets out in the evening, you should see the traffic,” Henderson told the board. He also expressed concern that wetlands around the school would cause issues when building athletic fields.
“I would like to see the board think about moving the school to a different area, with maybe one road in and out for security  reasons. I want to thank you and I trust you to do the right thing for the students, the citizens of Walton County and for the tax payers,” he concluded.
The board moved to pass the consent agenda unanimously, before moving onto the action agenda.
The board passed service contracts and agreements in the action agenda before passing approval for applications for grants  concerning technology for rural areas as well as executive financial summaries for the prior month.
Davis asked that mediators who worked on a memorandum of understanding between Sago Properties II L.L.C. and the board explain the agreement to board members.
Anderson told the board mediation on the issue was held Sept. 30 2013 in an “effort to settle the lawsuit from Sago Property.” Anderson added that the term outlined were for the school to build a retaining wall for a cost estimated to be around $45,000 and the school’s insurance company would pay damages in the case of $42,500.
Davis recused himself from voting on the agreement as he had done work for Sago on other issues in the past. Board member Dennis Wallace asked board attorney Ben Holley if he had viewed the agreement and considered it sound practice.
Holley said he was familiar with the case and had utmost confidence in the mediators that represented the school board. “They think it’s our best interest and I tend to think it is too, because that retaining wall can help inhibit possible future lawsuits or allegations or water going across there again,” Holley added.
School Board member Sharon Roberts said she had a few questions on the matter. Roberts asked Anderson if she was at the mediation and spoke for the board. Anderson replied yes and Roberts said, “Oh, OK, I didn’t realize we had sent you to do so.” Anderson replied, “you did not, Mrs. Denchmen [mediator] asked that I attend as well as Mr. Gardner.”
Roberts then asked, “Why are we building a retention wall? This has been going on seven years and this is the first I have heard of a retention wall.” Anderson replied that it was a result of mediation on the issue. “Who came up with a retaining wall?” Roberts asked
Holley Denchmen, an attorney who worked on the mediation responded to Roberts. “One of the things that occurred during that case which was filed in January was Sago Properties asked to attend the mediation in an effort to conclude the matter. I asked Mrs. Anderson and Mr. Gardner in the idea that the board acts on the recommendation of the Superintendent. There are confidentially provisions and I can’t really go into who said and did what, but the memorandum of understanding that you see before you was generated by the collaborative efforts of everyone involved. The wall was seen as a cost effective way to prevent any future water flow, resolve that issue and also in an effort that involves payment of damages that your insurance company will cover, so, it was seen as an effective solution for both parties and agreed to by both parties.”
Roberts responded that an engineer had stood in front of the board and told them the retention wall was working and if that was the case why did they need another one. She added, “the $45,000 is a low estimate of how much this is going to cost. We’ve already paid an engineer to do work out there and he stood right where you are standing and said the retention ponds were working. If that is the case, why are we building a retention wall?”
Denchmen responded that the school had taken steps to contain runoff such as retention ponds before and after the construction off the new high school as well as build a “berm” by digging a shallow ditch, but the backside of the berm encroaches on the plaintiff’s property and there was a dispute between the parties as to the effectiveness of those measures in the ongoing dispute.
Facilities Director Mark Gardner responded to Roberts’ questions about specifics of engineering plans and DEP approval that these had not been sought yet and Denchmen spoke up adding “the plans are contingent on the board’s approval” and added if passed the district would have until March 2014 to make the changes and get approvals.
Roberts continued with questioning whose idea it was to build a retention wall and the cost.  Gardner responded the amount was an estimate of materials needed and the work could be done “in-house” by employees of the district. Roberts responded that to vote on the agreement she needed a “realistic number” on the cost and did not believe the cost they were quoted was feasible to build a retention wall.
Holley responded to Roberts that DEP approval would be easy to obtain on the project since it was doing what they wanted, controlling the flow of water. Holley added, “it’s my opinion this thing has been hashed out for a long time and the building of that wall will prohibit any future lawsuits of water flowing onto other properties. I don’t know how you could resolve it anymore reasonably. If you don’t resolve it, you could end up facing some exorbitant costs down the road.”
Wallace asked for clarification from Denchmen. “Most of our cost will be absorbed by the insurer, correct?” Denchmen responded “correct, and explained the damages would be paid by the insurance company and the wall cost would be paid for by the board.”
Denchmen also explained that due to “inverse condemnation” if the board decided to proceed with litigation and lost, the claim would not be covered by the insurance company. A possible scenario if the board lost the case would be they had to purchase the property, would be on the hook for damages, attorney fees and may still have to build the wall if the judge over the case saw fit. Holley added in an inverse condemnation case, cost could well exceed the price tag for a retaining wall. Denchmen added to Holley’s comments saying “hundreds of thousands….”
Read the full story in the Oct. 24, 2013 edition of the Herald Breeze.

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