Luray’s Old Schoolhouse to be torn down

Page News and Courier

LURAY — Members of the Preserve Our School Foundation took their case to the Page County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, hoping to persuade the board members to change their minds about plans to demolish the former Luray Graded and High School building, also known as the Old Schoolhouse.
But despite an offer from Preservation Virginia, a state preservation group, to “open up negotiations” for a one-year option to purchase the building, and an architect’s declaration of interest in possibly renovating and developing it, the supervisors would have none of it.
“Without a voluntary motion from the board members, the project will move forward and stay on schedule,” Board Chairman Johnny Woodward said after a public comment period in which five speakers – Natalie Zuckerman, Rod Graves, Ruth Ann Smythe, Chet Taylor and Cornelia Graves Spain – were allowed to speak for three minutes each.
Public comments are not normally allowed at work sessions, but the board made an exception for this presentation. Taylor said he agreed to the arrangement only because Woodward had earlier been adamant that only Taylor could speak.
“But five times three equals 15 minutes, and this issue is too complicated for you to get your arms around in that short a time,” Taylor complained.
Zuckerman claimed that she has studied “all of the board minutes” going back to 2006. “I will point out to you that there has never been a public discussion of demolition of this building,” she said, although one was promised in 2007 but never held.
“Over the years supervisors have made choices they later regretted, but were always able to reverse,” Zuckerman said. “If you demolish this building, it will be irreversible and we will have lost something forever. There will be no going back.”
Graves noted that his late father, H.T.N. “Ted” Graves, attended the school before it ceased operation and was turned over to the county in 1935. Noting that he has successfully preserved and renovated a number of early houses in Page County, including the buildings that house the Luray Valley Museum, Graves said preservation helps make “a statement about who we are, where we came from and where we want to go. We ask for a stay of execution for the building where our parents and grandparents went to school.”
Smythe said one of the reasons she moved to Page County was because of the folklore associated with many of its old homes and buildings. The Old Schoolhouse is an integral part of Luray’s skyline and its heritage, she said.
“When you look up, you see the courthouse and that school building with that great bell tower. Please don’t take that down,” Smythe begged the supervisors.
Spain made similar remarks, and both she and Smythe noted Preservation Virginia’s interest in negotiating an option on the building.
“Preservation is in the best interest of all of us,” Spain said. “You have an opportunity to save an irreplaceable landmark.”
Taylor spoke the longest, pointing out to the supervisors a number of items contained in a packet that was given to them prior to the meeting. The material included some items that were presented to the Page County Planning Commission at its June and July meetings regarding parking options, as well as a letter from developer William Huber stating his interest in possibly developing the structure, and a letter from Preservation Virginia stating its interest in exploring a one-year option on the building.
“What we are asking you for is a year’s stay of execution on that building,” Taylor said. “Give us a year to show you how it can be done.”
But contrary to the optimistic scenario presented by Taylor, Huber and their supporters, County Administrator Mark Lauzier noted that delaying the current plans for any length of time could incur considerable burdens upon the county’s already strained financial resources.
In a memo written to the board prior to the meeting, Lauzier said Taylor’s group “offers no concrete partnerships to solve the issue of the millions of dollars that will be required to stabilize, remediate, gut/rebuild and to recondition or reconstruct” the building inside and out.
Lauzier’s memo noted that the building has been “previously condemned” and “has required reinforcement just to maintain minimum safety levels.” The memo also dismissed as “pure speculation” any claims that future use of the building could economic and tax revenue benefits, either to the business sector or to the county.
At the meeting, Lauzier basically reiterated those statements, and noted that “right now we have a plan to complete the new building by the end of October. The existing contract does not require us to tear [the Old Schoolhouse] down, but we need to turn dirt for the parking lot.”
Delaying the project would mean remodifications to the existing plan and renegotiations with the contractor that will have long range expenses, Lauzier said.
Architect Lowell Baughan, who designed the new administration building currently under construction, submitted a letter to the supervisors and also answered questions at the meeting.
Baughan disputed Taylor’s claim that only 16 parking spaces would be gained by tearing down the Old Schoolhouse building.
Because the building is within the limits of the Town of Luray, the building and zoning permits obtained by the county at the outset of the project require 74 parking spaces for the projected 14,670 square feet building now under construction. The plans, he said, will provide 75 spaces.
“Retaining the old school building will displace, not 16 spaces as claimed by some, but at least 40 spaces within the footprint of the existing building and its approaches,” Baughan said.
If the Old Schoolhouse were to be left standing, the 12 spaces currently to the rear of that building would revert to the use of that building only, and the new office building would only have 23 spaces behind it, thus violating both the town’s zoning and building permits, Baughan explained.
“These permits might then become null and void,” he added.
Baughan, who first drew the plans in 2005, said in his letter to the board that preservationists should have come forward at that time with a proposal to save the Old Schoolhouse.
If they had done so, he said, “perhaps some accommodation could have been made, but the project has probably progressed too far to take up that issue now without a considerable impact on the new building.”
After hearing comments from Lauzier and Baughan, Woodward asked his fellow supervisors if they had any comments. Only District 3 Supervisors J.D. Cave spoke, in reference to a letter in the board’s packet from the planning commission asking the supervisors to work with the Town of Luray and Taylor’s group to explore options for preservation.
“I don’t want to sound ugly, but the planning commission has absolutely no jurisdiction over this matter,” Cave said, “and it appears the only person who understands that is Jonathan Comer, who voted against this letter. The planning commission doesn’t do anything unless we give them an assignment. We need to remind them of that.”
No motion was made when called for by the chairman, so Woodward declared the project would proceed as scheduled.
Taylor was not happy with the outcome.
“That doesn’t tell us what every board member believes about preservation,” he shouted from the back of the crowded General District Court Room.
Spain jumped up at and pointed a finger at Woodward.
“This is irresponsible and you know it!” she shouted.
But Woodward, unfazed, asked the supervisors if they have anything else to say, then banged his gavel and declared the meeting adjourned.

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