By Eric Woomer
An Exeter City Council vote expected next week could determine whether a street closes down and residents lose their homes.
It also could mean a harsh battle involving the homeowners, the City Council and the Exeter Public School District.
Closing C Street
The school district will ask the city to close C Street between Highway 65 and Chestnut Street while it negotiates for 11 C Street lots, Superintendent Renée Whitson said. The homes, directly across the street from Lincoln Elementary School, have been there since the beginning of the 20th century.
While the original owners are gone, some residents have lived on C Street for more than 20 years.
“I’ve raised my family here,” homeowner Gary Willis said. “I own this house, and I don’t feel that it should be up the City Council to tell me I have to sell it.”
Willis, whose parents own the home next door, believes the systematic closure of C Street will remove a bargaining chip from the homeowners.
“If they make a land bridge between the school and our sidewalk, our bargaining power is over,” Willis said.
Exeter Mayor Leon Ooley said the council is considering making C Street at Highway 65 a cul-de-sac, creating a sidewalk between the school and the homes.
“We have looked at other alternatives, but they didn’t work with the city,” Whitson said. “The city and school district have to work together.”
Running out of room
Lincoln School has a capacity of 671 students. Currently, there are 651 in eight kindergarten classes, nine first-grade classes, nine second-grade classes and three combination classes.
There were 12 first-grade classes before the school raised the student-to-teacher ratio of 24 to 1.
“We had to bring relocatables in to keep up with the growing number of students,” Whitson said. “We must take action now.”
Homeowners seem to understand the problem but feel they’d have a hard time getting enough money to move to a new home.
“We are not here to stand in the way of progress or the school expanding,” homeowner Roberto Chapa said. “But we need to be accommodated for what we are going through.”
Whitson said the school must try to work within the state guidelines for students’ safety and will need to find a way to accommodate the growing number of students.
Safety is one reason to consider closing C Street, Ooley said.
The street could be considered unsafe because of its unusual slanted intersection at Highway 65, the lack of visibility for oncoming traffic and its proximity to the school.
But there have been no accidents on C Street over the last two years, according to the California Office of Traffic Safety.
Meanwhile, surrounding streets Chestnut and Highway 65 between Rocky Hill Drive and Firebaugh Avenue have combined for more than 20 collisions and five injuries.
“I could see this street being dangerous if parents were dropping their kids off and causing traffic to back up on this small street,” Willis said. “But it’s been a couple years since they used the street as a school loading zone. The only accident I remember was over five years ago, when a drunk driver plowed into a tree. Other than that, it’s been a safe street.”
Moving in and moving out
When Leslie and Roberto Chapa moved into their C Street home in August, they thought it would be a place to raise their three children for a while. One week after escrow closed, they learned they may not be living there much longer.
“If we negotiate this sale with the school, we won’t stay in Exeter,” Roberto Chapa said. “They’ll have to pay us what we deserve, but we won’t stay here.”
Greg Collins, an independent city planner and a Visalia city councilman, will work with the school if the school’s expansion plan passes.
He expects the school to negotiate one property at a time and that the use of eminent domain would be a last resort.
“There are pros and cons to this expansion,” he said. “People moving out is a con, but students having room to learn is a a big pro.”
The Chapas fear they will lose the first-time homebuyers’ credit they used as a down payment.
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