PLAINFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Parents of students at Chandler Woods Charter Academy were shocked when they arrived at school Wednesday morning to find bulldozers in the lot right next door.
“There’s 800 students at Chandler Woods and their parents that were never once notified,” said Michaele Lockard, who has two children at the kindergarten-through-8th grade charter school.
“Just shocking,” she continued. “Seems secretive. Seems like they knew the backlash that would happen and they wanted to avoid that so they weren’t forthcoming and willing to hear our concerns.”
J & H Oil is building a gas station and Little Caesars drive-thru on the northwest corner of Post Drive and Samrick Avenue NE, just east of US-131, in Kent County’s Plainfield Township.
The station’s entrance and exit will be located on the short private drive — an extension of Samrick — that runs north off Post Road. It’s the same private drive parents use to access the school’s parking lot for twice daily drop-off and pickup.
“It’s very scary to have it that close to a school,” parent Mindy Vandenberg said. “There’s children on the playground over here, going in and out.”
Several parents took to Facebook to express their outrage over the gas station’s proximity to the school.
“Sit down, because this mama is going FULL mama bear,” Jennifer Petitjean wrote on her Facebook page. “Traffic is already horribly backed up down Post and Samrick between 7am-8am and 3pm-4pm…. It already takes me nearly 25 minutes to get through the drive line in the afternoon to pick my kids up. I can’t even begin to imagine adding in more traffic. Traffic consisting of non-parents speeding in and out of a gas station in a hurry.”
Petitjean went on to express concerns about the possibility of people using the gas station parking lot to watch children on the playground.
She’s also worried about potential gasoline fumes and leaks from underground storage tanks.
“This is not just an inconvenience. It’s *DANGEROUS*,” she wrote on Facebook.
Petitjean and other parents were particularly upset that they did not learn about the project until bulldozers were breaking ground.
However, the Plainfield Township superintendent said his office reached out to the school about the gas station plan and publicized it in two email newsletters.
“Even though it’s not required, our staff made efforts to contact the school as early as June and left multiple messages with the school that were not returned,” Superintendent Cameron Van Wyngarden told News 8 Thursday afternoon. “We do have documentation from the developer (J & H Oil) that they were in communication with the schools prior to approval.”
Van Wyngarden provided News 8 with an email exchange dated Sept. 16 between the architects on the project and National Heritage Academies, the company that operates Chandler Woods Charter School.
Van Wygarden also pointed out that the gas station property has been zoned for commercial use since the early 1970s, so the township has no standing to prevent the development.
National Heritage Academies sent News 8 this statement:
“The land adjacent to the school is zoned commercial, so we knew it was a possibility that, at some point, it may be developed,” wrote Leah Nixon of National Heritage Academies, speaking on Chandler Woods’ behalf. “Traffic concerns have been raised, and we will consider our options related to the impact on our school community, both short- and long-term. This process will include regular communication with our families.”
News 8 responded to the emailed statement asking if National Heritage Academies informed its parents of the planned gas station. We did not receive a response to that question.
“It’s really important that people recognize they need to be involved early in the process when master plans are put together and zoning considerations are made,” Van Wyngarden said. “Far too often, people become aware only at the eleventh hour and only then do they become involved.”
Van Wyngarden went on to say that it’s actually past the eleventh hour in the case of the J & H Family Store gas station and Little Caesars drive-thru.
“The approval had already been made before most people were aware that this was happening, and it wasn’t due to lack of information being made public. It was just due to lack of attention,” Van Wyngarden said.
He acknowledged that part of the challenge is that most charter school parents live outside the township and therefore might not be tuned in to what’s going on there.
He also acknowledged the already difficult traffic situation at Post and Samrick.
“I understand traffic concerns absolutely. There’s already a traffic problem there. The school generates a traffic problem. The traffic study indicates the gas station will not exacerbate that problem. The traffic probably is generated by the school,” Van Wyngarden said.
The Kent County Road Commission, however, did voice concerns about the increased traffic the gas station will bring.
“We are very concerned that if the proposed development is constructed, traffic along Post Drive will be negatively impacted and traffic operations in the area may become unacceptable and unsafe,” Tim Haagsma, the director of traffic safety for the road commission, wrote in a July memo.
In an email dated Sept. 10, Haagsma said a review revealed that the addition of a left-turn signal for eastbound traffic on Post would not improve traffic operations during peak periods.
“We would like assurance that, if in the future the intersection could be better served with the left-turn signal, that J&H Oil would pay for the installation,” he wrote. “The congestion of the Post/Samrick intersection is confined to the morning and afternoon pickup and drop off periods and the intersection with the addition of J&H Oil should function acceptably for the rest of the day.”
Craig Hoppen, president of J & H Oil Company, told News 8 he’s “hurt” by some of the parents’ comments on Facebook.
“We built our company on doing things the right way,” Hoppen said.
Hoppen said J & H was “diligent” in communicating with all appropriate parties and will run a safe and clean store.
“We’ve done everything we could have done,” he said. “I have a very clear conscience.”
The store will sell beer and wine but not liquor. Hoppen said liquor sales are not allowed within 300 feet of a school, but there’s no such restriction on beer and wine sales. The public information officer for the state’s Liquor Control Commission sent News 8 a section of the Liquor Control Code that indicates the “sale of spirits within 500 feet of a church or school” is prohibited.
News 8 also reached out to several government agencies to inquire about environmental regulations surrounding the development of new gas stations. A spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy said it was not involved in permitting for the gas station.