Cove council discusses school district construction of bus parking lot

Sep. 7—COVE — The Cove City Council had its monthly meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 6, to discuss a slew of topics, including addressing an unfolding situation between the city and Cove School District — construction of a bus parking lot.

Construction of the parking lot — on the corner of Foster and Bryan streets — had already started when the city approached Cove School District Superintendent Earl Pettit to fill out a $75 variance application. According to Pettit, the school has resided on the same tax lot since 1976 — a tax lot that, as a result of the city's first zoning ordinance in 1984, became partially public and partially commercial property.

The tax lot line has existed for almost 40 years and the use of the property as an auxiliary portion of the school's land has not changed since the 1970s, Pettit said. He emphasized that no zoning changes should impact the continued use of school property.

"It runs right through the goalpost on the football field," he noted, joking that the visitor's section is commercial property.

Pettit emphasized that the school board was "never operating in secret" when it came to constructing the parking lot. As part of the district's long-range capital plan, the board presented a construction plan for the lot in November 2021 during its monthly public meeting. The school hired contractors for the project and began removing sod in July.

The superintendent said he fielded questions and complaints from neighbors about the issue and received emails from the city about the project, which culminated in a meeting about the situation that did not result in a solution. Pettit said that he received a letter some time after the meeting on Aug. 15 — which put the school district on notice and invoked a $500 daily fine for the parking lot's construction.

"The underlying issue was whether or not the city would have the authority to tell the school board what they can do with the property," Pettit said.

According to the council, the letter asked Pettit to file the variance application, a request he declined. He cited the school's long-standing use of the tax lot as school property in his decision not to apply for the variance. He turned to the school district's legal support and the district sent a letter to the city, asking it to communicate with the district's attorney.

"Pettit did not feel that he should have to do a variance," city councilor Jason Stone said. "So we're looking at the issue right now, trying to decide if perhaps that's the case."

The city has also reached out to an attorney — to get an estimate for the cost of legal support in the matter and see if the current zoning ordinance accounts for the property. According to Cove Mayor Sherry Haeger, it would cost at least $1,000 for legal consultation on the matter. Taking the situation to court would cost the city as much as $20,000.

The council acknowledged that its Transportation System Plan, ordinances and land use plan were silent on parking lots. Both Pettit and the council noted that the language used — specifically the classification of the parking lot as a "bus depot" — did not accurately classify the project.

In Union County, parking lots can be built on commercial property without permits. At present, parking lots are not permitted in residential zones, but there are no specifications in the Cove ordinance about parking lots on commercial or semi-public properties.

"We can take him to court and fight him, or we can take a look at this whole thing and look at the ordinance and make a determination about what action we want to take," Haeger said.

Public works director Dave Johnson noted that the council's ability to win a potential legal battle would hinge on the language and clarity of the city's ordinances, which several council members noted were vague and poorly written. The city's zoning ordinance was written in 1984, and its TSP was written in 1998.

"They're terribly outdated," Stone said, suggesting that the city adopt La Grande's newly updated ordinances.

The council landed on a decision during its September meeting — not take legal action, and neither approve nor condone the progression of the parking lot construction. Instead, the city plans to use the situation as an opportunity to update Cove's TSP, zoning ordinances and land use policies, drawing from La Grande's more recent model to build its own.

"I just don't believe this is the hill for the city to die on," councilor Matt McGowan said, emphasizing that he doesn't want the city to fight with the school district.

Pettit, who joined the council meeting virtually, said he is disappointed with how the situation unfolded. He added that the city's response never paused the school district's work on the parking lot, which is expected to be finished by the end of September. He agrees with the council on the need for updated ordinances.

"The plan clearly needs to be updated, we can all agree on that," he said. "To me, this was a small issue, literally over turf."

Shannon Golden is a reporter for The Observer. Contact her at 541-624-6015