Following more than an hour of public comment and discussion between council members on Tuesday, the Fremont City Council finalized a divisive zoning ordinance that will allow for commercial development near Fremont Middle School and Johnson Crossing Academic Center.
The land, located near the corner of east Military Avenue and Luther Road, is currently zoned as RR Rural Residential and with the passage of the ordinance will now be zoned as GC General Commercial within a 15-day time period.
The 4.8 acres of land encompasses a portion of the proposed SunRidge Place housing development which calls for approximately 240 units of apartments, 75 townhomes, 46 duplexes and 112 single family homes.
Along with residential housing, the proposed Don Peterson & Associates development is also planned to include commercial space that will be located within the 4.8 acre parcel of land in the northeast corner of the property.
During its meeting on March 13, the City Council held the second reading and advanced the ordinance by a 5-3 vote after initially introducing and holding the first reading of the ordinance by an identical vote on Feb. 27.
On Tuesday, that pattern continued as the ordinance was finalized by another 5-3 vote from the City Council. In all three readings and votes on the ordinance, councilmembers Susan Jacobus, Matt Bechtel, and Linda McClain voted against the zoning shift.
Throughout the month-long process the, now passed, zoning ordinance faced opposition from members of the public and on Tuesday 10 area residents voiced their opposition to the change at the meeting.
One of those residents was Brad Yerger, who led a petition campaign against the GC General commercial rezoning that included more than 240 signatures from local residents who opposed the change.
“I would ask you to not give the developers a blank check to build whatever they choose along the Military entrance to Fremont,” he said.
Councilmember Jacobus also voiced her concerns over shifting the zoning to GC General Commercial, even reading out more than 30 use-types allowed under the City of Fremont’s GC General Commercial zoning regulations at the Council’s March 13 meeting.
“Personally I am frightened at the idea of opening up a can of worms that would allow all of these uses, because if it doesn’t go in as retail, if it doesn’t go in as office, there are so many other things that (the developer) would be allowed to go ahead and develop this as because they are permitted,” she said at the time. “I personally would like to see the growth and the potential of growth in the area, but I don’t know how to put the lid back on this if this gets turned to GC. It opens up too many different avenues.”
Most of the concerns raised by the public regarding the zoning ordinance centered on the safety of students at Fremont Middle School and JCAC due to the potential for increased traffic in the area with the addition of commercial properties near the two schools, along with the possibility of human traffickers targeting students in the area.
Council President Scott Schaller addressed some of those concerns when voicing his reasons for supporting the rezoning ordinance.
“My children were too old to have gone out to the middle school, but I have two grandchildren who will attend school out there,” he said. “This has not been an easy decision, but I had to ask myself whether I would be comfortable with them walking past a convenient store or other commercial properties on their way to school and ultimately I came to the conclusion that I am comfortable with that.”
Along with Schaller, councilmembers Mark Legband and Michael Kuhns, who also voted in favor of the ordinance, cited the need for available commercial amenities to serve the people who will be living in SunRidge Place housing when it is developed.
Dave Mitchell of Yost Law Firm, who spoke on behalf of Don Peterson & Associates at the meeting, also spoke about commercial growth coinciding with the residential growth planned for the SunRidge Place development.
“If we are going to grow, along with residential growth will come with commercial growth in order to serve the residential growth,” he said. “If you have nothing but houses and no commercial amenities nearby then you are not engaged in good municipal planning.”
For Justin Bray, one of the most exciting parts of running the Johnson Crossing Academic Center’s Coding Club is bearing witness to the “aha!” moments.
One of the kids’ first tasks, for instance, is to program a robotic rolling sphere, called the Sphero, to travel along the shape of a square that is taped down onto the floor. It can be a complicated task that involves understanding how angles work and some programming. But when the kids figure it out, Bray says, there’s an exciting moment where everything clicks.
“It’s just kind of ‘mind blown’ sometimes once they figure it out,” Bray said. “There’s a lot of ‘aha!’ moments, once they master something.”
The coding club is new to Johnson Crossing this year, and it’s seen quick growth. During the course of the school year, Bray estimates the club’s roster numbers have risen from roughly 35 to 50, highlighting the growing role that technology is playing in Johnson Crossing students’ daily lives. Along with the coding club, which is new this year, the school also has a robotics club in its second year, and has recently implemented 1-to-1 laptops, where each child is assigned to his or her own device.
“Once kids start seeing it, like if they’re hanging back after school and they see us participating in coding club, then we get more kids asking about it and get parents emailing us and saying, ‘hey how do I get my kid in this?’” Bray said.
Bray, a social studies teacher, is not a coding expert, but he has prior experience running a coding club. He started the coding club at Howard Elementary School during his four years as a teacher there.
When Bray first came to Johnson Crossing, the school had been considering starting a coding club as a follow-up to its robotics club, according to Principal Brent Harrill.
Harrill knew of Bray’s past experience and felt that Bray could be a good candidate to run it.
“This was kind of phase two. Our robotics club was phase one, and then we rolled into the coding club in year two,” Harrill said. “It’s kind of all triangulated. We’ve got one-to-one technology. We’ve got the coding club where we’re teaching kids how to code and think with critical thinking skills. And then we’ve got the robotics program where they’re actually taking those skills and going in and programming and building those robots and putting them to use in real-life application.”
The club meets twice a week — on Thursday morning and in the afternoon on Monday. About 40 kids regularly come to the afternoon sessions, Bray said, while around 10 make time in the mornings. Bray runs the club along with Johnson Crossing Science teacher Devon Webben.
Children use Chromebooks and iPads to experiment with a variety of different coding opportunities. There’s the Sphero, which kids can program to navigate mazes, move in various directions, play games or change color. There are also websites, like Code.org, which allow them to create video games or understand the coding behind video games.
Recently, the Spheros were used for a “battlebot” competition, where kids placed a cup over the robotic ball and decked it out with Popsicle sticks, creating battlebots designed to knock other battlebots out of a competitive ring.
“A lot of times they figure it out even quicker than I do, and then I kind of have some of them teach me,” Bray said.
There is some level of instruction in the class, but most of the session is open-ended, Bray said. He described his and Webbin’s roles as “facilitators.”
“There’s a lot of conversation during: ‘ok, so this happened, how do we fix it?’ Or, ‘this went right, what did you do to make it go right?” Bray said. “A lot of free roam of their imagination and a lot of conversation during.”
The club also has a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) component. In one challenge, for instance, students have to build a free standing bridge that their Sphero can cross.
“There’s measurement involved, there’s weight distribution, angles are involved, different types of math is involved,” Bray said.
For fifth-grader and club member Abigail Johnston, building the bridges was one of her favorite parts of working with the Spheros.
“It’s fun because it’s like, ‘oh is my bridge going to make it?’” Johnston said. “(The club’s) challenging, but it’s also fun because you get to learn new things and try different codes, and I think that’s really fun.”
Johnston was first exposed to coding at Bell Field Elementary School. Now, she thinks she may want to pursue it as a career one day, and the club has helped her explore that.
Programs that expose kids to coding can help foster positive attitudes toward computer science, according to Justin Olmanson, assistant professor of instructional technology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
“Some of the research suggests that programs like that positively influence student learning of computer science concepts and attitudes toward computing in general,” Olmanson said. In the right setting, he added, programs like that allow students to develop “all the soft skills that in the early 21st century we care about — teamwork and collaboration.”
He cautioned, however, that computer science — like many other topics — is most interesting to children when it’s taught in a setting that emphasizes relevant problem solving — like that which can be enabled by items like the Sphero.
“If all the kids are doing coding problems that you give them and they’re not connected to their life or they don’t have to do a lot of planning in order to do it, it can be problematic,” Olmanson said.
Additionally, he added that an open-ended setting is important because not all students learn the same way. For instance, some students may prefer competition, while others may prefer finding solutions to problems. Creating an open and experimental setting can help foster more diverse interest among kids, Olmanson said. That’s especially important as STEM fields look to get more women and girls interested in potential STEM careers.
Currently, the Johnson Crossing coding club is nearly 50-50 in its gender makeup, with 28 boys and 22 girls, Bray said.
Bray and Harrill believe that getting kids interested in coding can help prepare them for future jobs.
“Through a lot of the classes that I’ve taken in master’s programs and master’s classes, they just talk about how many jobs are out there that don’t even exist yet,” Bray said. “The way our world’s going, too, with technology, just understanding the language behind the technology that’s created and used every day, and the problem-solving skills that are involved in coding I think are good for any part of life or school.”
Bray also hopes to expand the program to allow more kids to have opportunities to experiment with coding during the school day. That way, those who are involved in sports or other clubs can still find opportunities to try it out.
Dodge County has submitted an updated list of requests to Motorola, hoping to reduce the cost of a proposed project that would update the county’s public safety radio system, according to Rey Freeman of RFCC, LLC, who is representing the County on the matter.
Dodge County is looking into updating its public safety radio system, used by emergency response entities like the county deputies and rural fire department. The county is assessing a bid from Motorola, which the board received at the end of 2017.
Freeman was brought on board to analyze the bid from Motorola and represent the county in negotiations with the company, after the board was concerned by the significant cost outlined in the bid, according to Dodge County Board of Supervisors Chairman Bob Missel.
“It’s clear that this product that we’re looking at is kind of the standard going forward. It’s what Douglas County uses, it’s what the City of Fremont uses, and ultimately, it’s the direction I think we’re headed,” Missel told the Tribune. “After the proposal from Motorola and considering the expense, we felt it was prudent to bring in an expert from the field.”
Among the new requests, which Freeman sent to Motorola on March 15 and outlined to the board during its March 28 meeting, is a request to reduce the size of four new towers outlined in Motorola’s original proposal from 350 feet to 330 feet.
“You might say what’s the big deal, but in the tower world and the (Federal Aviation Administration) and (Federal Communications Commission) requirements, once a tower structure or anything on the tower hits 350 feet, you need a more expensive and high performance lighting system on the tower,” Freeman told the board.
“They went back and updated the coverage maps with that and they came back and said there’s almost no appreciable difference in the performance of the system with the shorter towers,” Freeman added.
Freeman said he’s also looked at the possibility of using propane instead of diesel generators, using less expensive radios and updates to the “tower site shelters,” which hold the radio equipment at the base of the towers.
“We have asked for, frankly, a larger building that will allow the generator to be inside the building,” Freeman said.
He added that the County is also considering doing the tower site development on its own, separate from Motorola.
Freeman also asked for more pricing detail from Motorola to see more of “how they’re arriving at the cost of pricing that they come up with.”
“There’s no major change to the core radio system,” Freeman said, adding that all of the proposed changes “will be rolled into a revised proposal from Motorola that we hope to see soon.”
Missel explained that the project is necessary to ensure that emergency responders can effectively connect.
“The current system that the county deputies use and the rural fire uses and rural police, it’s outdated, and it’s a case of functionality,” Missel told the Tribune. “There could be a fireman out there in a building somewhere out in the county and all of a sudden he can’t communicate with a 911 center.”
In other news from the Board of Supervisors meeting:
*Dodge County’s assessed value went up by 3.75 percent this year, according to the Dodge County Assessor Debbie Churchill. That was driven by a big increase in residential value, which went up by 10 percent. Agriculture dropped by a little more than 1 percent, and commercial went up by 4.7 percent.
*The county approved a request from the Dodge County Highway Department to advertise for bids for a used Tandem Axle Chassis & Cab and to have the bids opened at 11 a.m., April 23.