The Kelowna landscape is dotted with phantom schools, unbuilt buildings where kids never have and never will learn, laugh and play.

To some, these invisible schools represent a terrible betrayal of promises once made to homebuyers.

To others, the fact the schools were never constructed simply reflects changing demographics, fluid plans and the district’s skill in wisely managing taxpayer money by getting better land deal elsewhere.

Two of the phantom schools are on Dilworth Mountain. The properties were acquired by the school district when the hilltop neighbourhood was being developed in the 1980s.

People buying homes 30 years ago in Dilworth were probably motivated to do so, at least in part, by the prospect of two schools being built in their area. It certainly would have been talked up by the developer, Daon, and realtors at the time.

But the Dilworth schools, like others planned for various sites around the Central Okanagan, were never built. The school district still owns the Dilworth properties, however, but leases them to the city as recreational properties.

More than 20 years ago, the district entered into an agreement with the developer of the-then brand new Kettle Valley subdivision in the Upper Mission. A 5.7-hectare site in the middle of Kettle Valley was zoned as institutional, and its future possible use as a school was heavily promoted in the neighbourhood’s marketing materials.

But in this case, the district never actually bought the property.

Exactly why it didn’t is a matter of some controversy, at least among the hundreds of Kettle Valley residents who were outraged last year to learn the tentative agreement between the neighbourhood developer and the school district had fallen apart.

Dozens of those Kettle Valley residents packed into city council chambers Tuesday night to oppose the developer’s request to have the land, used mainly as a soccer pitch through an agreement with the city, rezoned from institutional to residential, for the construction of 84 more homes.

“People bought into the neighbourhood anticipating a future school with fields and green space linking to the existing Quilchena Park,” Alexander Michl wrote in one of the dozens of letters of objection received by the city.

“The current soccer fields and park land is a vital area that we, as a community, use daily,” Lorena Fuhrmann wrote. “To see such park land lost for more homes and condos would be devasting.”

From the developer’s point of view, the issue is simple. Since the school district no longer wants to buy the property, it only made sense to have it rezoned to allow for more homes.

After all, Kettle Valley already has more parkland than city regulations require, and the new homes would be similar in style and size to the hundreds that already exist in the master planned community. City staff were supportive of the rezoning.

An intriguing, though unanswered question, is how much the Kettle Valley developer wanted the school district to pay for the land.

Gary Athans, a neighbourhood resident who led the charge against the rezoning proposal, says he has been told by school board officials the developer wanted as much as $9 million. With its current zoning of institutional, the property is only assessed at $1.2 million.

“It’s understandable the school district (would not buy the property),” Athans wrote in his letter to the city. “One has to wonder if the developer really ever wanted to have a school.”

It might have been the developers intention all along, Athans was suggesting, to dangle the prospect of a school to many Kettle Valley homebuyers over the past two decades, but then set such an inflated purchase price that the district had no choice but to decline the offer.

At the public hearing, the developer’s spokesman said the requested price was reasonable and based on a fair market value. But the district wound up buying land for a new Upper Mission school in the nearby Ponds neighbourhood, at far less, and terminated its option to buy the Kettle Valley site.

After three hours of discussion, council voted 6-2 to deny the requested rezoning from institutional to residential. Only Mayor Colin Basran and Coun. Gail Given favoured the proposed development.

It was a victory for Kettle Valley homeowners, but perhaps only a temporary one, as several other councillors said they might look favourably on a future development application for the site that had fewer homes.

So the property will sit empty for now.

But the reality is it’s too valuable to be left as is, and the city will never buy it as parkland, as some Kettle Valley residents hope.

Odds are another development proposal for the site will arise at some point, one that probably has less than 82 homes and includes a larger park dedication to the city than the 1.2 ha that was part of this ill-fated plan.

So another phantom school is established. Maybe this one never had a ghost of a chance of becoming reality in the first place.

Ron Seymour is a Daily Courier reporter. Phone: 250-470-0750. Email: ron.seymour@ok.bc.ca

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