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Selecting the Right Site: 10 Considerations to Chart the Future

May 9, 2013 by Mark Boehlke, ASLA in School Business Affairs

This article originally appeared in the March 2013 School Business Affairs magazine and is reprinted with permission of the Association of School Business Officials International (ASBO). The text herein does not necessarily represent the views or policies of ASBO International, and use of this imprint does not imply any endorsement or recognition by ASBO International and its officers or affiliates.

When considering a new school construction project, the site selection and evaluation process is a critical step in early planning. Selecting the right site is paramount to the project and can have a major impact on the outcome of a referendum. Careful consideration and thoughtful attention to site-related issues and details can set the course not only for a great school project but also for a more creative design, more cost-effective building, and a stronger community.

Here are 10 issues to consider when selecting a site.

1. Usable area. District officials should prepare a program for current and anticipated school use to determine the optimal land area. The site should have enough usable area to accommodate current and future program needs, including buildings, parking, sports facilities, maintenance areas, and drainage or stormwater management requirements. The physical and environmental constraints of a potential site need to be thoroughly documented and evaluated. Steep slopes, wetlands, floodplains, existing easements, and zoning restrictions, such as setbacks, are some of the site issues that may limit the area that can be developed. Some sites may appear to be ample at fi rst, but they may later prove to be substandard or inadequate.

2. Zoning and land use. The site may be zoned for other land uses and may require rezoning or a landuse plan amendment. Confirm that the zoning and planned land use are appropriate and that any obstacles can be modified to accommodate the proposed school use. It is also wise to examine the zoning of the surrounding area to minimize future issues. Additionally, as you consider the overall effect on the community, keep in mind that many municipalities experience substantial growth or revitalization in the area of a new school.

3. Topography and drainage. Does the site have steep areas that are inappropriate or prohibitive for development? Are there on-site or nearby drainage issues, such as drainage ditches or navigable streams that could cause flooding? Are there any potential storm-water management concerns? Natural features that detain or divert storm water away from the site can be valuable, so watch for those too.

4. Utility service. The site should have adequate utility infrastructure, such as water, sanitary sewer, electric, and gas. The service availability and accessibility must be confirmed and any associated costs evaluated. Lack of existing service can cause project costs to skyrocket. At times, partnerships to bring in the necessary utilities can be formed with other developers, municipalities, or those focused on the region’s economic development.

5. Traffic and access. The site should be in a location that provides adequate and safe access to and from the geographic area to be served by the new school. Parent, student, visitor, and bus traffic should be carefully analyzed during the site evaluation process. Jurisdiction of all adjacent streets should be confirmed, and the proposed school’s access and traffic issues reviewed with appropriate government agencies. Be certain to consider future growth of both the school and the surrounding community as you design this important aspect.

6. Location. A central location within the school district or student population is desirable. If the site is perceived as being in a poor location, the public may not support the school. More than one referendum has gone awry when key stakeholders were alienated because of a shortsighted and noncentral location choice.

7. Hazards and surrounding land use. Are there real or perceived concerns or environmental hazards on-site or nearby? Such hazards include toxic waste, highvoltage transmission lines, landfills, or industrial uses. Surrounding land uses, such as commercial, low-density residential, manufacturing, and others, may be considered inappropriate or hazardous. Quality research and a prudent eye can often avert problems that could cause concern for years to come.

8. Land and site development costs. Is the price of the land consistent with other property in the area? Are development costs reasonable? Site development costs should be evaluated to confirm that they are indeed appropriate. On-site grading, off-site utility extensions, off-site road improvements, and other site development costs should be analyzed to understand the total effect on the overall project costs. Citizen groups will examine those costs. Appropriate land and development costs can be a great asset in the referendum process if citizens feel that leadership is being budget conscious.

9. Geologic and geotechnical conditions. A geotechnical report should be prepared on the types of soils, bearing capacity, depth to water table, depth to bedrock, fill areas, and other existing soil conditions. This report is vital to confirm that the site can be developed for a school and that costs are not prohibitive to remedy any on-site soil conditions.

10. Your neighbors. When selecting a site, be sure to visit current and potential residents, neighboring businesses, and organizations. Making friends can produce great partnerships, reduce costs, and generate enthusiasm in the community. Every project team should consider who they can partner with to realize win-win situations. For some districts, there may be opportunities to share parking lots or create collaborative spaces that can be used by the broader community. For River Crest Elementary in Hudson, Wisconsin, a magnificent option was right across the highway: YMCA–Camp St. Croix. “We have developed a wonderful partnership with Camp St. Croix,” says Superintendent of Schools Mary Bowen-Eggebraaten. “The district had the foresight to build a tunnel under the road for safe passage, not only for our students but for the campers as well. Our students and staff can use the beautiful environmental campsite, and the campers can come over to the River Crest site and use our facilities.”

This passageway provides safe access between the trails at Camp St. Croix and the surfaced walking/bike trail that winds around the 43-acre school property. Now, the school and the camp have access to additional resources without further expenses or disturbing more of the environment. As well, it boosts community spirit and environmental awareness. Making Wise Choices It is vital that the district take a thorough approach when choosing its next site. Reports or assessments that should be reviewed as part of the site evaluation and site acquisition process for a potential school site are outlined below. These items can be incorporated into an offer to purchase property.

> Title report 
> Phase 1 environmental site assessment 
> Geotechnical report 
> Boundary and topographic survey 
> Wetland determination or delineation 
> Utility service report 
> Zoning and land use analysis 
> Site approval submittal and approval summary, including a list of
   all necessary approvals and time lines to gain approvals 
> On-site and off-site development cost analysis 
> Property appraisal

The captain of a ship would study weather conditions, routes, visible and invisible obstacles, the weight of the vessel, and many other variables before charting the course for a great voyage. Now, you have a clearer picture of how to chart your course for site selection, ensuring a wise choice that will take your students, parents, teachers, district, and community right where you want to go.

Mark S. Boehlke is a senior land planner/landscape architect for Hoffman Planning, Design and Construction Inc. Email:

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