The problem between the city of Portsmouth and the Portsmouth City School District concerning alleged encroachment by the school onto city property shows no signs of going away anytime soon.
While City Council voted to take no action on the item which was on the city manager’s agenda, they did so only to allow time to see if school officials can come up with documentation that city officials gave them the right to build part of their athletic complex on city property. The result is an extended sidewalk that now has a fire hydrant and a utility pole right in the middle.
“This has come up on several occasions,” Portsmouth City Manager Derek K Allen said. “So I would like to move forward or decide what we want to do about this. I’ve reviewed city records. I can’t find anything during 2007 or 2008. That would have been for the baseball diamond. The track was built around 2012. I have asked people and they don’t know anything about this. I pulled it up on the GIS and beyond the fences, there is actually an encroachment, besides utility poles and fire hydrants and the fence, you actually have a structure behind the bleachers on the baseball field, and the indoor batting cage. It looks like part of left field is in the city’s right-of-way.”
Allen said, when you observe the track, the only thing that appears to be in the city’s right-of-way is the fence.
“It could be questioned as to whether the track goes onto the city right-of-way,” Allen said.
Allen said the city would have to hire a surveyor to confirm exactly where the complex encroaches onto the city’s right-of-way.
City Solicitor John Haas has stepped away from the controversy because he also represents the school district in some legal matters, so in addition to hiring a surveyor, the city would have to hire an attorney.
“This wasn’t included in the budget and I didn’t go out and get an estimate,” Allen said.
Allen then left it up to City Council to decide what it wants to do.
Second Ward Councilwoman Jo Ann Aeh said she had some things to say about the situation.
“It doesn’t take a surveyor to go up there and look and see these encroachments,” Aeh said. “They are so obvious and I will not agree that we take taxpayers money to pay for a surveyor. You can walk out of the administration office and see that the sidewalk was moved to make way for the ball field. Then it curves back in and goes to the normal sidewalk by the administration building. Then it curves back out and goes past the track.”
Aeh said, while they are concentrating on the south side of Ninth Street, there is an egregious encroachment on the north side of Ninth Street where the softball field is. She said when the city vacated property, they permitted the construction to take place in two phases, but that did not change what was being vacated.
“I wouldn’t think that it would be our responsibility to have a surveyor,” Mayor Jim Kalb said. “I think the school should have a surveyor.”
Aeh said there is nothing in the documentation that allowed the school to build on the city’s right-of-way.
“You can stand at the northwest corner of Waller and Ninth Street and look straight and you’re looking right down their fence, because that’s where it is. It’s out on the sidewalk,” Aeh said.
One of the concerns Aeh has is when people approach the fire hydrant or utility pole, they have to take their baby strollers or wheelchairs out into traffic to get around the encumbrances.
“I watched a lady in a motorized wheelchair. She could not get around a fire hydrant, and that’s not fair,” Aeh said. “I think we have to treat them equally. fifty-seven percent of our property taxes go to the schools. Twenty percent goes to the city and I’m not in favor or spending any of that 20 percent of the taxpayers money to get a surveyor or an attorney. If they want to fight it – I don’t think they will.”
Allen said, if the city is going to pursue the issue, the school district is going to have to move everything out of the city right-of-way.
“If we’re the moving party here, we need to show proof that they’re on our right-of-way,” Allen said. “In the end there has to be something that shows that they are actually encroaching.”
First Ward Councilman Kevin W. Johnson suggested asking the school for their records as to when they were told they could encroach onto city property before taking any further action. Allen said he had talked with Portsmouth City School Superintendent Scott Dutey and he has no documentation, only that they say somebody at the city gave them approval
“I don’t think that happened,” Aeh said.
Third Ward Councilman Kevin E. Johnson asked Council if they remembered all the run-down houses and drug houses that sat on that property before they were torn down to make way for the athletic complex.
“Now we have ball fields where we see our kids and our grand kids playing ball,” Kevin E. Johnson said. “We see families gathering. I would much rather see that going on than what we had there before. Granted they’ve got a pole in the middle of the sidewalk and there’s a fire hydrant on the sidewalk, and that’s an inconvenience. Life is an inconvenience sometimes. Sometimes we have to stroll around things and yes, maybe we should talk to them and see if Mr. Dutey and them would be willing to help move or make the sidewalks more accommodating.”
Kevin W. Johnson said he would vote against going after any lease payments from the PCSD.
“What I would like to see though is a way to take care of people not having to go around into the street,” Kevin W. Johnson said. “That’s my issue.”
It was 17 minutes into the discussion before someone mentioned that the same taxpayers pay for both the city government operation at the city schools, so all funds would ultimately come from the taxpayers.
“The school board and the city are supposed to kind of be on the same side aren’t we?” Fifth Ward Councilman Gene Meadows said.
“I just don’ think the taxpayer should have to pay for moving those encumbrances and I think that they have to be moved,” Aeh said.
“We’re going to pay for it either way,” Meadows said.
Reach Frank Lewis at 740-353-3101, ext. 1928, or on Twitter @franklewis.