By Gerhard Schneibel
gerhard@reporternewspapers.net

The discovery of subsurface rock at the site of a planned elementary school in Sandy Springs has raised the possibility of blasting and raised the ire of neighbors who have resisted the construction at Ison and Roswell roads since it was proposed.

A community information meeting on the school construction plans Sept. 10 provided a forum for the site’s opponents to express their frustrations.

Fulton County Board of Education spokeswoman Susan Hale said the meeting was routine, but the controversy came from notices sent to neighbors by Vinings-based Evergreen Construction informing them of the possibility of blasting.

The blasting would remove “subsurface trench rock” that the company discovered Sept. 2 and thus clear the way to install storm and sewer pipes.

Hale said the area affected is “fairly finite” and that reconfiguring construction plans would require the removal of more trees from the site.

“We haven’t 100 percent said we’re going to do the blasting. We heard enough concern at the meeting that we’re at least going to give it a second look,” she said. “When you take down a mature tree, it doesn’t grow back immediately. If there’s a way over the course of a couple of weeks to remove this rock and keep those trees intact, it’s an option we want to pursue.”

The construction site is within 1½ miles of one gas pipeline and within two miles of another. The school is scheduled to open in June, but its construction has been plagued by controversy since February, when the school board considered delaying the project for a year.

The Ison Road school is the second of two elementary schools the Board of Education approved to alleviate overcrowding in Sandy Springs. The first, Lake Forest Elementary, opened this school year.

The school board paid about $10.7 million for the 24-acre site last year after letting an option to buy the land for $5 million less lapse in 2005. The board signed a $7.2 million contract in June with Evergreen Construction to build the school. In addition to the cost of the land, the Fulton County school system will spend about $28 million in SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) money to complete the school.

Evergreen Construction also built Lake Forest Elementary, which has the same 57-classroom design as the Ison Road school.

Jim Ramseur, who lives in the Grogan’s Bluff subdivision near the site and serves on the city’s Citizens Advisory Committee, said the school board drastically overpaid for the property. He has questioned why the board chose not to use its power of eminent domain to make the purchase.

School board President Julia Bernath has said the board uses eminent domain only as a last resort. In this case, the seller was willing to make a deal without eminent domain.

Ramseur also opposes the blasting and rejected Hale’s argument that blasting would conserve trees on the property.

The construction crews have “already clear-cut 16 acres. There’s not a single tree standing,” he said. “We want to see a bond posted with the city so that if there are any damages, there’s a clear and decisive path to give residents assurances.”

The school board and contractors had assured neighbors that blasting would not occur, Ramseur said. Recently, “every neighbor started getting a notice in the mail about wanting to conduct pre-blast surveys,” he said. “Obviously, that stirred some animosity.”

Gary Alexander, the president of the Grogan’s Bluff Homeowners Association, said: “Every time the school board tells us something, it seems like it’s not true.”

Despite promises that the project would protect trees on the site, it “looks like Hiroshima,” Alexander said. “We don’t know exactly what we’re dealing with here. We have found many of the things said by the builders, candidly, not honest.

“We were told there wouldn’t be any blasting. Now we’re all of a sudden surprised that there is going to be blasting. It would appear to me that this entire process was done in neglect.”

Dist. 2 Councilwoman Diane Fries said concern about the blasting is legitimate, “especially when it’s sprung on (neighbors) without any preparation.”

“I do think it was an appropriate request to ask (the school board) to investigate other alternatives because it could be very possible to, I don’t know, redesign it a little bit,” she said. “I don’t want them to turn the whole property around.”