Originally created 02/03/05

Convent awaits pledge from school officials



Sister Cintra Pemberton wants to be a good neighbor to the Richmond County Board of Education, but she's not feeling the love in return.

The school board has removed hundreds of trees they mistakenly cut down during a faulty surveying job on the meditation trails owned by the Convent of St. Helena.

But Sister Pemberton is waiting on a pledge from school officials that they will not try to seize the convent's property as they build a new magnet school. That project is next to the convent on land that currently houses the district's transportation department.

"The situation is not even close to resolution yet," Sister Pemberton said this week. "I'm very satisfied the way things are going along. But the situation was so disturbing, that I won't be satisfied until the situation is settled."

In December, chainsaw-wielding surveyors contracted by the school district wrecked the convent's meditation trails by cutting down hundreds of trees. The district's project director, Jeff Baker, blamed the mistake on a misunderstanding by surveyors, who thought they were supposed to evaluate the land.

Mr. Baker met in January with Sister Pemberton and the convent's consultant, Phillip Christman II, and he promised to make financial restitution and provide a written promise the school district would not seize the land.

The school system has hired two experts to assess the damage and loss of trees, but their reports are pending, Mr. Christman said. If the convent wants a third opinion, it can get one, he said.

"Then it would be the matter of negotiating a monetary settlement of damage, plus expenses, plus damage to the ministry," he said.

But the school system hasn't come through on its written promise. Mr. Baker did not return a phone message Wednesday.

Sister Pemberton is still reeling from the damage. New trails created by the surveyors make the woods difficult for guests to navigate, she said. "They've created a certain amount of confusion," she said.

Also, the convent has recently discovered that trees damaged by the school board can attract pine beetles that could spread to healthy trees. So, the damaged trees must be removed.

Even worse, trash is blowing from the school's property onto the trails, something Mr. Christman attributes to bus drivers who are eating near the convent property.

"At least they could have their cleanup crews go up there periodically and provide some trash cans," he said.

The convent has been at its Eagle Drive location since 1965. It includes a glass-walled chapel, guest retreat house and reception center. It also includes about 20 acres of woods, which have become an essential part of the ministry, Sister Pemberton said.

The woods include an outdoor chapel, a gazebo, a cemetery, benches, a memorial cross and several trails.

Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (706) 828-3851 or greg.rickabaugh@augustachronicle.com.