Sacred Heart School administrators, staff and parents erupted in applause Tuesday night, following the Turlock City Council's unanimous decision to move forward with the abandonment process for Cooper Avenue.
A number of Sacred Heart employees and parishioners addressed the Council prior to the vote, asking for the street abandonment due to safety concerns. Cooper Avenue runs in between the elementary and preschool campuses of the private school. Currently, the school has a permit to close the road only during school hours, but the church would like to permanently incorporate the roadway into a closed campus.
Father Salvador Ledesma said that he is grateful for the growth his parish has seen — 6,000 families in the congregation, with 4,000 attending services sometime during the week —but the increasing number of parishioners and students coming to the campus without additional land available to expand presents safety issues.
"Help us respond to our one need of safety," said Ledesma, who added that the closure would also help the church be better neighbors.
"The safety of the children must always come first," said Sacred Heart Principal Linda Murphy-Lopes, who said that 300 children attend Sacred Heart school and preschool on a daily basis, but over 2,000 kids participate in nightly ministry programs at the church.
Edwina Rocha is an employee of Sacred Heart School and said that traffic safety is not the only ongoing problem.
"We have a huge problem with strangers and homeless walking through the area," said Rocha.
The church's plans for Cooper Avenue, if the abandonment is successful, includes creating a grassy area, additional parking spaces and improved sidewalks.
For Sacred Heart teacher Kevin Crivelli, the abandonment of Cooper Avenue for the use of the school would also mean a safer place for students play and have physical education.
"In the 20 years I've been a teacher there, I've seen a wide variety of things from broken bones..cuts needing stitches, multiple cases of road rash..and cars nearly missing running into the gates," said Crivelli.
"As a parent, I'd hate to say we had a chance to stop this, but we chose not to," he continued.
While Sacred Heart staff enumerated the benefits the street abandonment would have for their students and parishioners, some Cooper Avenue residents think the street closure would be detrimental to their welfare and safety.
Amy Boylan-Mendes said that when her house caught on fire during school hours when the street was closed in 2001, she saw the fire engine start down Cooper, then have to turn onto Lyons and back onto Cooper to get to her house.
"The last time I fought this at a city council meeting, I asked how much is my life and property worth to the City and the church? I've seen it with my own eyes," said Boylan-Mendes about the response time for emergency personnel on Cooper Avenue.
Anthony Mendes said that his main concern is that this is a "church-driven issue and not a child safety issue."
"The thing that's frustrating is there seems to be a lot of back door action with this Council...whether it be favoritism or some kind of payoff with Sacred Heart Church because this has gone far beyond child safety.
"As far as I can tell there is absolutely no reason the children need to be protected after 6, 7, 8 p.m. or on the weekends," he said.
Cooper Avenue residents Veronica, Charleen and Joanne Schendel sent a letter of protest to the City, stating that they are against the street abandonment for public safety reasons and because, "I pay property taxes for street access and not for a playground/parking lot."
During Tuesday's Council meeting, Development Services Director and City Engineer Mike Pitcock gave a report stating that the potential impact on traffic, circulation and emergency vehicle response due to the street abandonment would be minimal.
"It's our obligation as policy makers to make sure everyone is safe," said Vice Mayor Amy Bublak before voting on the issue.
The next step in the process will be the notification of local residents of the City's intent to abandon the street, followed by a public hearing set for April 12.