Project began with #8216;the best deal#8217; donation

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 14, 2008

Southampton County has more than the generosity of its taxpayers to credit when it comes to the new Riverdale Elementary School.

The project got its start when the developer that owned the current school property, as well as hundreds of acres adjacent to it, learned that Southampton school administrators were searching for a site for a school to replace the aging and overcrowded Hunterdale Elementary School.

During the system’s site search, George Fiscella of Hampton Roads Development LLC approached Southampton County School Superintendent Charles E. Turner

with an offer of help.

After three months of negotiations, the parties settled on “a negotiated site donation agreement” that Brian Camden of construction management firm Powell Management Associates lauded for its simplicity and generosity: The company would donate outright a portion of its Camp Parkway property to the school system.

The company’s only stipulation for the $375,000 donation was that a school would had to be built there within 10 years.

The agreement also required the developer to spend about $680,000 for off-site improvements, including water and sewer extensions and connections, a road for a bus loop, some surveys and studies pertinent to the project and a stormwater runoff pond.

Camden stressed that “nothing was promised in return” to the developer and that his company and the county had “gone to great pains” to ensure that their own plans for the school are disconnected from any of the developer’s other plans.

In fact, Fiscella was rebuffed by the county’s Board of Supervisors in June, when members voted 4-2 against changing Southampton’s comprehensive plan to reflect plans for commercial and multi-family components he wished to include amongst the remaining 432 acres of the former farm that straddles Delaware Road along Camp Parkway.

The request had met with quick and vehement opposition from county residents, who turned out by the dozens at various hearings held to receive public input on the application.

Even without the ability to build the desired commercial and multi-family facets of the project, the property adjacent to the school still has value to the developer, as it is permitted to support up to 475 single-family homes.

Once those homes are built, children living there would be obvious beneficiaries of an elementary school within walking distance.

Despite public speculation that he was trying to influence the county toward approving his subsequent zoning requests, Fiscella has kept quiet about his motivations for making the donations.

He attended the public hearings involving the property donation, as well as those in which he sought changes to the comprehensive plan, but in all instances he allowed others to plead his case. He also has failed to respond to repeated requests for interviews regarding the school and plans for the neighboring development.

Whatever the reason for the donation, school officials and their construction representatives have been excited about Riverdale ever since the gift that launched it.

Camden, in particular, was enthusiastic about the project as he considered the Planning Commission’s approval of a rezoning that was necessary to set the property aside for a school, noting that school projects seldom get off to as promising a start as this one has.

“I’ve been buying school sites for 25 years, now, and this is the best deal I’ve gotten,” he said in a telephone interview at the time. “I’ve never had one that was as beneficial to the school system as this one.”