Board grants zoning variance to school

A new private school has received the city’s permission for zoning on its proposed location.

The Columbus Board of Zoning Appeals voted Tuesday to approve a use variance request from Liberty Academy of Columbus to allow a K-7 school at an area zoned Industrial: Light.

The property in question is located at 101 National Road in Columbus Township. The county’s GIS system shows that the Jerry and Sherrill Gehring Joint Trust purchased the 3.6-acre site for $515,000 from the J. Hartley Company, Inc. in April. The system also shows that the main building and accessory structure were constructed in 1982, though The Republic’s records indicate that the Hartley company constructed its facility at the site in 1976.

“The accessory structure will not be used for the school operation and will be used for storage by the owner,” planning officials wrote in a staff report about the request. “The applicants anticipate installing a playground outside of the drive that will be fenced in accordance with the zoning ordinance standards.”

“I know it’s a little odd to have the storage facility there, but again, plenty of room for us in that large building,” said head of school Victor “JR” Huff. “We have eight classrooms plus a common area inside, so plenty of room for the time that we’re intending to lease the building.”

According to planning staff, properties near the site include the Moose Lodge, the Golden Crown Lodge, the Hillview Mobile Home Park, Bobcat Rentals, agricultural fields, a machine shop and a Veterans of Foreign Wars post.

During the board of zoning appeals meeting, board member Zack Ellison mentioned the VFW post and asked if there are any regulations around having a school located adjacent to an establishment that operates bingo games and sells beer.

“Not that I’m aware of,” said assistant planning director Melissa Begley. “It’s certainly not a zoning ordinance requirement.”

According to Indiana Code, the Alcohol and Tobacco Commission is generally prohibited from issuing a permit to a premises if a wall of the building is situated within 200 feet from a wall of a school or church building and “a permit has not been issued for the premises under the provisions of Acts 1933, Chapter 80.”

However, there are certain exceptions. For instance, the rule does not apply to a grocery store, drug store, restaurant, hotel, catering hall, craft manufacturer or location for which a supplemental catering permit has been approved if:

(A) a wall of the premises is situated within two hundred (200) feet from a wall of a church or school;

(B) the commission receives a written statement from the authorized representative of the church or school stating expressly that the church or school does not object to the issuance of the permit for the premises; and

(C) the commission determines that the church or school does not object to the issuance of the permit for the premises

Huff, who lives near the subject property, said that it is “very rare” for anyone to be at the VFW post during school hours.

“Maybe once a week they’ll have it kind of full for lunch, but outside of that, we would expect very little traffic to be going through the VFW during the day,” said Huff. “So most of the time, if they have one of those larger events — like last night they had a motorcycle event, so I drove by and it was packed, but well after school hours.”

He also discussed the school’s plans for drop-off and pick-up, saying that they plan to ensure that the car line does not back up onto National Road.

“We think this is a great spot for us to launch the school and plenty of room for us to grow,” said Huff.

However, while the board of zoning appeals has approved Liberty’s variance request, school leaders have more work to do before the National Road site is ready for the first day of school.

According to the staff report, code enforcement officials said that the proposed use of the site — Group E, Educational — is considered a change of use of the structure under the Indiana Building Code.

“Due to that, a filing is required with the State Fire and Building Services Plan Review Department,” officials wrote. “The structure is required to meet the current building code requirements for the new Group E occupancy. The filing is commonly done by a design professional such as an architect or structural engineer after an evaluation of the building by that person. This would be done after the use variance outcome from the BZA is known.”

Additionally, Columbus City Utilities wrote in its comments on the request that if Liberty wants to use the existing building as a school, the department will require the septic tank effluent system to be replaced with a grinder pump system.

Liberty Academy also has its own plans for improvements at the site. Huff said in a previous interview that the school plans to do a full interior renovation and extend the drive around the building for one-way traffic during pick-up and drop-off. Liberty’s variance application also stated that the building is “in need of repair.”

Huff said in early May that the school was seeking a three-year lease with the property owner, who is also expected to make some improvements.

The National Road property isn’t the first site school officials looked at as a potential location. Liberty Academy previously applied for variances to locate the school in an office/warehouse building at 1460 Jackson St., which is located in the Industrial: General zoning district and within a special flood hazard area.

The board of zoning appeals denied both requests in late February. According to City/County Planning Director Jeff Bergman, the board later approved a request from Trionic Human Performance to allow a fitness facility at the site.

City Councilman Tom Dell, who previously voiced concerns about the Jackson Street site, expressed his support for the new location.

“It seems like this would be a better placement and facility for not only their growth now, but probably their future growth as well,” he said.

Ellison likewise said that the National Road property seemed to be a better fit.

Per the staff report, there are no flood hazards on the site.

According to Liberty’s latest newsletter, the school is set to open Aug. 9. Huff told the board of zoning appeals that more than 30 students have enrolled thus far.

Per the staff report, the school expects a maximum capacity of 80 students and 15-20 staff, with about 60 students and nine staff during the first year. The school year will run from early August to late May, with school day hours being 7:45 a.m. to 3:15 p.m.

The school’s website states that while Liberty’s “ultimate goal” is to offer grades K-12, school officials expect to open with K-7 “in order to cultivate the culture necessary for a proper classical education.”