By ALICIA LEONARD
The DeFuniak Springs Planning Board unanimously approved a special request to start a Christian school in the existing First Baptist Church Facility. The DeFuniak Springs City Hall was filled to standing-room only with supporters of the request and a few opponents as well.
Mention of the meeting first appeared during the April 7 planning board meeting. Per minutes from that meeting, James Coffield, church pastor Jerry Chumley and Jack Huggins approached the planning board with the special approval request and the public hearing date was set for May 5.
Planning board member Jim Harman recused himself from the vote at both meetings due to being a member of the First Baptist Church subcommittee on the school. A second planning board member, Ryan Douglas, responded to a series of question from Clay Adkinson, representing Adkinson Law Firm, and disclosed that he was a member of the church, but he was not a member of the subcommittee planning the school. After further questioning, Douglass told the crowd that his mother had been hired to be a teacher at the new school, but they had not discussed the school. Adkinson told the planning board that he and Douglass has spoken before the meeting and Douglass did not feel the need to remove himself from the vote. Adkinson agreed with Douglass and recommended to the planning board that Douglass be allowed to vote on the request.
Adkinson then swore-in the crowd calling the meeting “a quasi-judicial proceeding.” Speakers were asked to sign in at the podium before they spoke.
DeFuniak Springs Planning Director Greg Scoville explained the scope of the school to the board. The school is to have no more than 88 students at its maximum capacity with 22 students to a class room and six teachers or support staff for grades K-5.
Scoville told the board that nothing as far as the Historic District issues need be addressed since there would be no outside changes to the building and all alterations would be inside the existing education building at the church. Scoville’s two concerns he expressed to the board was the ability of the church’s dumpsters to handle the trash of potentially 88 students and the fact that he had not received the final traffic analysis for his traffic engineer.
The church had responded in an letter dated April 30 to these questions. They wrote that the existing dumpster would be adequate to handle the trash and the primary drop off and pick up point would be off Leconte Street at the canopy on the east side of the church. The letter also stated that parking should not be an issue because the parking lot for the church would be utilized. The church has paid for a independent traffic study performed by CDG Engineers & Associates of DeFuniak Springs and said the results show the proposed school met the traffic concurrency requirements.
Citizen Tom Hutchins approached the board first and stated he was a resident of DeFuniak Springs. Hutchins brought up many points of order about the timing of receipt of the request, dates of amendments to the request by the church and considerations of the application. Schoville and Adkinson responded with dates of correspondence from the church and Adkinson asked if any of the members of the Board had discussed the issues outside of the meeting. The members of the board shook their heads no, which Adkinson verified by saying, “I see all the heads shaking no.”
TOM HUTCHINS approached the Board and asked for them to rethink the Church’s proposal for the private school. (Photo by Alicia Leonard)
Hutchins submitted two different letters to the board as evidence saying, “The first letter states nothing about outside changes but the second talks about more grade levels, an elevator and outside structural changes and I plead with the board to reconsider this and to review these changes more closely. Hutchins was allowed to submit the documents as evidence, as well as multiple photos of the churches “parking infractions and issues,” as Hutchins called them.
When Hutchins spoke about the history of the parking issues and the church, board chairman B B. Campbell slammed the gavel down and told Hutchins, “I believe your time is up.” Adkinson intervened and told Hutchins and the board that the photos produced could be admitted into the record since the request came by Hutchins before his time was up.
Hutchins asked for more time and was granted another two minutes. Hutchins said, “We have seen nothing about this. There has been no articles, no editorials in the papers and I know you submitted the legals, but with something of this magnitude that will affect a neighborhood, the board has a responsibility to get more information out about it. This church has a history of being disingenuous about the protection of the historical significance of our area and their parking on Sunday morning. These are the same people that are saying they are going to be able to handle all of the traffic and cars that will be coming through this school.”
First Baptist Church Pastor Jerry Chumley spoke to the Board on behalf of the school. “There will be no major changes to the outside of the building I believe except a window. The number of students will not be changed or go above the number listed. The alleyway we are using is only used by the church and a few neighbors. We want to give DeFuniak Springs the choice of a private or Christian school. We feel like the is a legitimate function of the church and we respectfully ask the board to approve this request.”
Jack Huggins, financial director for the church, responded to board members queries about future growth. Huggins said, “We have actively been search for land. We don’t know yet if that means we will move or move the school, but the space issue is something we are actively pursuing an answer to.” Church deacon Mike Richards made a point of order and stated, “Mr. Hutchins said he was lived here on Circle Drive, but in fact his house has been up for sale for a year and a half now and he lives in Lynn Haven. I would say if his house was sold he would not be here or have a dog in the race tonight.”
Hutchins responded from the audience, “I regret that.”
After a short discussion between staff and board members, the board approved the request unanimously 4-0 to the special request contingent upon results from the traffic study results, approval from the DeFuniak Springs City Council on turning Laconte into a one-way street and a cap on the student limits submitted as only 88 allowed. The approval will now be passed onto the Council for a vote.