BLOUNTVILLE — Call it Jericho Drive or Sam Walton Drive: Anyway you name it, a new access road for West Ridge High School may be about to become a reality.

However, the Sullivan County Commission still must approve a resolution the Board of Education approved unanimously at a called meeting Monday evening. The resolution would set the wheels in motion for an extension of Jericho Drive across farmland to West Ridge High on Lynn Road.

"I'm hoping for a called (commission) meeting," school board Chairman Randall Jones said after the vote. "If they reject this, we're back where we started." The commission in late 2016 approved $60 million in school bonds that went to the county for a new middle school and West Ridge, as well as to Kingsport and Bristol school projects.

But access to West Ridge, which had a known location when the bonds were approved, has been a point of contention between the school board and commission ever since.

Monday's meeting was in the library of Holston Middle School with no public attendance because of the pandemic, but it was broadcast on the school system's YouTube channel via The Video Guy.

WHAT WERE VOTES?

The school board Monday voted 7-0 to approve a resolution to spend $286,800 from unrestricted fund balance or reserves. Of that amount, $26,000 would buy a purchase option from Jericho Partners LLC, including former Highway Commissioner Jim Belgeri, and then exercise the option to buy eight acres under that option for $260,000.

The vote also sets in motion the process of bidding out the road-building project to a single entity or group for a turnkey "design and build" project, with a caveat that the project must be completed no later than. Aug. 1, before West Ridge opens as a merger of Sullivan South, North and Central high schools off Exit 63 of Interstate 81.

Jericho Drive off Airport Parkway (sometimes called Sam Walton Drive, school board members said) goes beside the former Sam's Club, now home to Second Harvest Food Bank, and near a proposed truck stop in the parking lot of the food bank.

Included in the bidding would be an alternate of a gravel driveway, a private road of the school, to connect the campus with Henry Harr Road. All told, up to $6 million in bonds would be issued to pay for the project.

The board also voted 7-0 to empower Jones, Director of Schools David Cox and Board Attorney Pat Hull to meet with Jericho Temple officials to discuss buying about an acre of land from the group or trading part of the eight acres for the one acre.

School board member Mark Ireson asked why not talk with the Shriners before voting, but Jones and former Chairman Michael Hughes said the Shriners group has been receptive to selling and/or trading land with the school system and Belgeri's group.

At a later time, the board is to vote on paying for a professional consultant on an hourly basis, possibly Belgeri. He proposed an access road while in office and again late last year. However, Jones said Belgeri has no interest in being a project manager as suggested as an option by Michael Hughes.

WHAT ARE PROJECT DETAILS?

Jones said the project would include about 574 feet of road in the city limits of Kingsport and more than 700 feet outside the city in Sullivan County.

Basically, a new road would be built from around Waste Management, where the private Shriners road starts, over to Lynn Road, he said. Jones said Kingsport plans to repave city roads in that area after the school access road matter is settled. The Highway Department also has expressed interest in improving its portion of Lynn Road.

He said access road discussion has been confusing to say the least. County commissioners last week were unwilling to discuss approving the original plan for Jericho Partners to buy the land and acquire the right of way, build the road and then sell it to the school system for up to $6 million.

A caveat is that time is of the essence and not just for completion. Hull pointed out that the transferable option to buy the land expires Feb.12. For a $5,000 non-refundable payment, the option can be extended to May. If the deal goes through, the $5,000 is applied to the purchase price. If not, the school system would be out $5,000.

ARE SOME AGAINST THE PROJECT?

Jones said no commissioners spoke out against the road at a series of meetings last week, only against the mechanism of getting it built first called a "public-private partnership" and then referred to as a purchase of a completed road.

"That resolution was deemed to be not legal by (County Attorney) Mr. (Dan) Street," Jones said, explaining that Street said the process would illegally avoid the normal bid process and be an illegal private-public partnership.

"We had other attorneys who said the plan was legal, but we can't go against the county attorney," Jones said.

He also said the original Belgeri plan to cut Lynn Road in half and put cul de sacs before the new access road had no commission support.

The board rejected other resolutions that did not include the alternative bid for the gravel access road and ones that made the project a private driveway, which would not require county or city approval but would have to be maintained by the school system.

Jones said the Highway Department might be able to do the gravel road more cheaply, but that can't be determined until the low bid price is known.

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