City Planning chair: SA operating ‘dormitory’

Published 9:20 am Friday, June 15, 2018

During Monday’s City Council meeting, the chairman of the Franklin Planning Commission and several city residents spoke against Southampton Academy’s plans to turn the former Hanes Byerly residence on Meadow Lane into housing for its international students.

Dr. Dan Peak, who has served on the Planning Commission for over 30 years and resides on Meadow Lane, referred to the proposed use of the property as a “dormitory” and said that in his opinion, he did not believe that the city’s R-O One-Family Residence District zoning ordinance, which specifies only single-family homes be present, would permit such a use.

“The academy has been doing this on North Drive for almost three years, and has been renting [another property] on Queens Lane to a number of students there,” Peak said. “Fifteen unrelated students paying room and board and tuition is not a family. At the end of the day, this is a business.”

He then said that the city’s zoning ordinance specifies that a family shall not include more than four unrelated individuals living in the same household.

“I think the wording makes it clear that boarding houses are not permitted,” Peak said. “The law firm Randall | Page are presenting a narrative, which explains that the house parents will have guardianship of the children, thus making them one big family. I hope you see this as kind of a ridiculous stretch to get around the intent of the ordinance.”

Additional speakers opposed to the academy’s plan were Ben Powell, Jerry Bryant and Bob Trainer, all of Meadow Lane. Powell said that while the students are likely all well behaved and supervised, allowing SA to continue to operate student housing in Franklin could “open a can of worms” and lead to the presence of halfway houses for drug abusers. Bryant agreed with Powell, and Trainer said that he felt exchange students should live with a local family rather than with other international students.

Two other speakers spoke in support of Southampton Academy’s plan. These were Arwen Councill, who is the director of SA’s international exchange program, and former mayor Jim Councill, who is Arwen’s father-in-law.

The director read a prepared statement on behalf of the school, which said that the academy had launched its international student program in 2014, and welcomed its first international student from Taiwan in August 2015.

“Our program has successfully expanded to include over 40 students from China, Vietnam, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Ukraine and Uganda,” she said. “These students apply to Southampton Academy rather than other schools around the country because our school is located in a tight-knit, traditional, quiet, peaceful community. These students come wanting to experience small-town America. Their dream is to experience American culture, receive an American education and graduate from an American high school. Students enroll in ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th grades.

“The success of Southampton Academy’s international program has been largely due to the unparalleled enthusiasm and support we have received from the community. Our students have been welcomed with open arms as they have participated in sports, outdoor recreational activities, become members of the YMCA, and excelled academically. We can’t thank the community enough. Neighbors have enjoyed the association of living near our students. The feedback and response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“In fact, most often the feedback received is, ‘We didn’t even know your students live there.’ Our students go about their lives quietly, taking the bus to and from school, primarily staying at their desks during the afternoon and evening, walking to the YMCA when they need a fitness break.

“Southampton Academy has full legal guardianship of each international student and the authority to name specific people to exercise that guardianship. This guardianship names Southampton Academy ‘in loco parentis,’ granting custodianship of the student to the academy while the student is in the United States. Students are expected to adhere to, abide by, and follow the school’s honor code not only at school but also at their places of residence.”

“I’ve gotten to know a number of students over the years,” the former mayor said. “Some play golf, some go to the Y, they’re delightful students. They present no risk to anyone. They study a lot, they work hard, bridging the language gap. They don’t go out a lot. I’ve never heard anyone complain about them.”

Speaking to The Tidewater News on Thursday, Arwen Councill and SA Headmaster Scott Wasdin both denied that the houses on Meadow Lane, Queens Lane and North Drive were dormitories in the sense that the term would be used at the college level. They explained that the academy employs full-time “parents” who live with the students in the houses the academy owns for the duration of the school year. The Queens Lane residence, Councill explained, is a rental rather than one owned by SA, and the academy does not intend to use the property again this fall.

“These people are paid to be parents and live in these houses, this is not checking in at Virginia Tech and being on your own for nine months,” she said. “The parents, they cook, they have family meals together, they communicate together like a family would.

“Students are not allowed to drive. We are responsible for all their transportation needs. They ride our school bus. Some students might have a bicycle and can ride their bicycle to the Y or to the park. That’s one of the beautiful things about Franklin. They feel safe here. They’re from huge cities. That’s why they choose this area. When I interview students, I ask them, ‘How many people live in your home town?’ It’s typically a million or more, and then I tell them our community has 8,000.”

She added that Southampton Academy also has international students who stay with local families that own their own homes. The cost to international students is the same regardless of whether they live with a host family or in a home owned by SA, she said. Students pay one flat rate, which covers their tuition, housing, books, school field trips, PE uniforms and other costs.

City Manager R. Randy Martin said that as far as the City of Franklin was concerned, these properties were indeed operating as single family residences because legal guardianship is one of the forms of familial relation defined in the zoning ordinance. As long as the people living in a house are legally related, either by blood, marriage, guardianship, there is no limit imposed by the city on how many people can reside in a single unit, he added.

Wasdin added that all international students are vetted multiple times before they arrive in the country.

“All of this is with collaboration and cooperation of [the U.S. Department of] Homeland Security, and all of our students not only go through that vetting process, but also a vetting process through their own countries,” Wasdin said. “There’s multiple vetting points, including us. Every student interviews with myself as headmaster or Mrs. Councill.”