Archive for the ‘schools’ Category

(For background on this issue, see these previous posts: Smart School Siting, Smart School Siting – 2Smart School Siting – 3Smart School Siting – 4, Smart School Siting – 5, Charter School Proximity to Residential Neighborhoods.)

It’s taken me awhile to get to writing this, but the long-playing saga of my opposition to the Sebastopol Charter School’s move to an out-of-town location is finally over. And I lost. The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors held a public hearing on the matter on Oct. 23rd. After an approximately 4 hour meeting and around 40 public comments the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the Use Permit application. So the City of Sebastopol is about to get a new charter school campus outside its Urban Growth Boundary. scs-campuses

I must say I’m not surprised by the outcome. The school has been working on this for years and did a very good job meeting with supervisors beforehand and doing their political homework. And who can say ‘no’ to a school? I always knew it would be an uphill battle for me and to be honest I didn’t always have the time or energy required to really fight this. But when I did, I was surprised about how little support I received in my opposition. Maybe it’s just me and this really is a great idea. I find it hard to believe.

The most support I received came from the Sebastopol City Council. They wrote 3 letters expressing opposition to the project. But to be honest, the letters were less opposition to the project than opposition to the impacts of the project to local traffic. Not one of them said simply, ‘We do not want this school to be located on this site outside of our Urban Growth Boundary.’ They talked about traffic impacts, and concern about safety for kids walking and biking to a location that while located adjacent to a bike/walking trail is not a very walkable location and asked that these things be ‘mitigated’. One council member went with me to meet with the supervisor who represents the district, but not a single city council member attended the hearing. A fact that was not missed on the supervisors. The supervisor with whom we had met noted that if this issue was so important to the city council he would of expected ‘at least one of them’ to show up at the public hearing. I don’t disagree. Would it have made a difference? Probably not.

I tried to solicit support from the Greenbelt Alliance. The Greenbelt Alliance has been working for years to protect open space in the Bay Area and has been a leader in the establishment of Urban Growth Boundaries. But when this school proposal came forward directly outside the UGB, the local representative was told not to get involved. Isn’t this what they are about, protecting the open space outside the UGB? I’m not sure why we go to the trouble if we just sit back and watch auto-oriented projects get built outside the UGB. It seems like a waste of time if the UGB is not used to actually focus urban growth within the boundary. The head of the county planning department said this was a great ‘infill opportunity project’. Really? This is infill development? Outside the edge of town? Am I missing the boat on understanding infill development?

I tried to solicit several other local non-profits to get involved, without luck. Again, probably would not have made a difference. The Board of Supervisors saw a great opportunity for an ‘infill site’. There was some concern expressed by several of the supervisors about hundreds of cars crossing the bike trail on a daily basis (as the applicant pointed out this would only happen the 180 days a year or so that school is in session), but not enough concern to withhold their approval of the project. The Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition did write a letter and speak out about the crossing of the bike path. But not on the inappropriateness of the site for a school.

We are a completely auto-oriented society and will continue to be if we keep expanding our auto-oriented development patterns. A real opportunity to create a 21st century in town school has been missed. The school feels confident that walking and biking to school will increase at the new location. I hope they are right, but I just cannot imagine it. Look at the image above. While a 1 mile radius from the existing in town school location basically includes the entire town, a 1 mile radius from the proposed location doesn’t even reach half the town. And the pedestrian/biking infrastructure is horrible to that location. Yes, yes, it is located on a bike path, but nearly every child will have to cross a very busy state highway to get there. I just don’t get it. Children will continue to be driven to school for as long  as the school remains open. And we are all the worse off for it.


Sidewalk and state highway near the location of the proposed school. This environment continues for at least 1/2 mile from the school. As you get further from the school there is more development and curb cuts.

I must say I’m happy that I don’t have to consume brain space for this anymore. It did weigh on me as my daughter had attended the school, and I actually really like the school and the education my daughter received. I do want to see the school succeed. And it was difficult to be on the opposite side of this issue from many friends. But I still truly believe this is a mistake for our community. We can, and must, do better than this.


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This post in in the response to the following comment from the Press Democrat Close to Home published by advocates of the Charter School.

Paul, I read your opinions as being very much centered on your own neightborhood. Not very many people live in walking distance of the current campus. I wish you could approach the situation from a slightly larger point of view. The potential of the new campus is that many more people would be able to get there without cars than is the case at the current campus. This is what is exciting to me about the new campus from a let’s-not–drive-if-we-don’t-have-to point of view. I realize that there is a risk that it might not develop this way, But if we can put the infrastructure in place — a campus served by a bike trail — then there is a possibility that it WILL happen. For me it is worth the risk.

My Response:

I wish I could believe that John. I did an overlay on an aerial photo with a 1 mile radius circle centered on the existing downtown campus, the existing K-2 campus and the proposed campus. The downtown campus circle encompasses pretty much the entire city limits of Sebastopol. The proposed campus gets almost to Bodega Ave., leaving out anyone south of there. Which yes, that includes my neighborhood, but it also includes about half of the residential neighborhoods of town. Unless there is some strange coincidence that the families of the Charter School only live north of Bodega Ave., I’m not sure I understand where you are coming from.

The blue circle is a 1 mile radius from the existing downtown campus. The yellow circle is a 1 mile radius from the K-2 campus and the red circle is a 1 mile radius from the proposed campus. The blue circle clearly encompasses more of the residential neighborhoods of Sebastopol than the red circle. Am I missing something?scs-campuses

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The end is near. After many years of working with and against the Sebastopol Charter School on a new facility a final decision from the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is scheduled for October 25th for a proposed new campus for the school. I have been encouraging the school to stay in town expand the downtown campus, and share the local facilities available at that location. The other alternative would be to work with the local school district and other charter school to develop a long-term facilities plan for all the students given the fact we have fewer students than we did 20 years ago. There must be empty classroom space somewhere. But the school has relentlessly pursued a location on the edge of town, adjacent to, but outside of, our Urban Growth Boundary.

Existing Schools Plus Proposed Sebastopol Charter School Campus

Again, circles represent a half-mile radius centered on school campuses. The red circle is centered on the location of the proposed Sebastopol Charter School campus. Note how few homes are located within a half mile of the site.

I had an op-ed published yesterday in the local paper. It was co-written by Sebastopol City Council member Patrick Slayter. Here is a link to the op-ed. The primary focus of the op-ed is that Patrick and I, and others, do not believe the county should be approved an auto-centric use like this school campus right outside the City of Sebastopol’s Urban Growth Boundary. If the county approves these kinds of projects, why do we go to the effort of creating Urban Growth Boundaries?

I will say it has been disappointing to try to rally significant opposition to the project. I’m not sure if people are simply afraid to say no to a school for fear of being anti-education or what. Or maybe I’m crazy and this really is a good place for a school. I hope that is not the case.If you’re interested in reading more history, I have 4 other posts about it which you can read here, and here, and here and here. And if you are interested in writing a letter to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors you can find their email addresses on the county’s website. If you want to attend the meeting it is schedule for October 25 at 2PM. At least a final decision will be made at that time and I won’t have to devote any more time or brain space to this issue. It’s been going on for many years and I am ready to move on. But having said that, if the supervisors do not approve the use permit and the school wants to discuss other options, I would be more than happy to engage them. I believe their is an alternative that can work for everyone. This proposed site only serves the school without consideration of the impacts on the wider community.

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I live in a small town. The population is around 7,400. The total area is about 1.8 square miles. There are some hills but it’s generally easy to walk and bike pretty much everywhere in town. Even though we have 2 state highways passing through town and therefore have our share of traffic, no street is wider than 3 lanes and there are many quiet residential streets to walk on, avoiding the busier roads altogether. I’ve committed myself to walk/bike to in-town destinations whenever possible, unless I will need to be transporting something more that I can fit in my backpack. I know this is not standard practice, and why is that? I’ve been trying to wrap me head around it and cannot figure out why we are so attached to our cars. It’s definitely a cultural thing. Most of us are raised in environments where the car is the primary means of transportation. And the environment does not encourage us to get out of our cars. So even when we end up living in a community like the one I live in, we are used to just getting into our car to go by that tube of toothpaste rather than walk the 15 minutes to the drug store.

We need to change the paradigm of immediately getting in the car whenever we need to get somewhere and we need to start with our children. My daughter’s school participates in Walk and Roll to School Day every Wednesday. I stand in the courtyard of her school and count the number of kids walking, biking and carpooling to school (we decided to include carpoolers because as a charter school there are a fair number of kids who live outside of town and could not realistically be expected to walk and this was a way to encourage them to reduce their carbon footprint).walk and roll tallyingOn the first Wednesday of the month the class that has the most walkers and bikers wins the ‘Golden Sneaker’ award and the class with the most carpoolers wins the ‘Silver Hubcap’ award. They also get a pencil, which is a surprisingly popular ‘award.’ Participation varies but is generally decent. It tends to be higher on the first Wednesday of the month when the award is tallied and pencils handed out (and families receive a phone call reminder the day before). So far this year we’ve had a high of 88% participation. This was on October 8, International Walk and Roll to School Day 2015. November was a close second with 78% participation ( percentages are based on the total number of kids living in town which is 72 attending the grade 3-8 campus). The winter months have been a bit lower which I guess is to be expected, but this is Northern California after all. It’s not like we have blizzards to contend with. As you may have heard we’re in the midst of a drought and haven not had many rainy Wednesdays (although the lowest was 21% which happened during a day of pretty steady rain). So weather really shouldn’t be an issue, although we have some ‘chilly’ mornings now and then.

I know we can do better though. I know there are kids that live within a 15 minute walk to school that rarely, if ever, walk. One kid in my daughter’s class (eighth grade) lives about 1,000 feet from the school and he is almost always driven. I can’t even fathom this. It’s so great for kids to get some exercise before school. Studies show that kids are more alert when they get some exercise before school. Walking is a way to decrease stress and increase creativity. Walking to school gives them an opportunity to be independent, think responsibly and make decisions for themselves.

The most encouraging aspect of being the parent counting the walkers and rollers has been to see the enthusiasm of the third graders, which is the youngest kids on campus. There have been days when the number of walkers/rollers is more than the number of third graders that live in town which means there are families that park away from the school and walk the remaining distance to campus (they are asked to walk a minimum of 10 minutes to be counted). I also hear participation at the K-2 campus is good so I’m hoping that as these kids age the total number of participants rises. The K-2 campus has 2 regular ‘walking school buses‘ which is when a group of children meet at a specific location and are walked to school with at least one accompanying adult.

I am concerned, as I have written about on several occasions (here, here, here and here) that the school is planning on moving from it’s 2 in-town locations, to a location on the edge of town which is far less walk and bike friendly. I’m still hoping it doesn’t happen, but if it does, I hope that the kids that currently walk and bike will have it ingrained enough to continue to do so.

My daughter has been walking to school since kindergarten and I think it’s been so good for her. From kindergarten through second grade it was about a mile walk. She didn’t always walk both ways (which would end up being about 4 miles of walking for my wife), but at least one way every day, sun or rain. In third grade she started attending the ‘upper’ campus location, which is about 3 blocks from our house so her time spent walking decreased significantly. But the day she was aloud to walk by herself, near the end of third grade was great. You could just see how proud she was of her new found independence. I believe it’s made her much more confident and not only in knowing that she can make her way around town on her own, but in other aspects of her life as well.

We need to break the cycle of immediately getting into a car for every trip. There are so many benefits to be gained from walking and/or biking. In his book ‘Why I Walk,’ Kevin Klinkenberg discusses the benefits of walking, breaking them down into four categories; financial, freedom, health and social. I am fortunate enough to be able to walk to my office (it was in my house until about a month ago, but is now about 3 blocks away) and to most of my daily destinations. Because of the way we’ve been building our cities for the past 70 or so years, many of us are not this lucky. But if we look for them, there are opportunities to walk more than we do. I’d encourage you to look for the opportunities to start if you are not walking already. And start your kids walking more. Once it become normal for them, they will likely continue to be walkers into adulthood.

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Today’s post will be an update on the Sebastopol Charter School’s pursuit of a new 20 acre campus located on the periphery of Sebastopol. If you’re interested in reading previous posts on this topic please see the following links; Smart School Siting -1,  Smart School Siting – 2 and Smart School Siting – 3.

The school has filed a Use Permit application with Sonoma County. The current zoning of the 2 parcels that make up the 20 acre site is Rural Residential with a density that would allow up to 10 single-family homes to be built. A public school is an allowed use with the approval of a use permit. As part of the use permit process the county planning department sends out a letter of referral to other interested agencies or departments in the county for comments on the application. As the proposed site is adjacent to the Sebastopol city limits and in the city’s sphere of influence the city received a referral letter.

At their meeting this week, the city council discussed their response to the referral request. I was pleased that the council members were unanimous in their opposition to the project. While all council members stated their support and appreciation for the school and what it brings to our community, they all felt that the proposed site was not an appropriate one for a school and the relocation of the school to this property would generally have a negative impact on the larger community. I was impressed with the level of the discussion and how the council members really seem to understand the planning issues involved with the proposed relocation.The discussion focused on planning issues related to sprawl and the fact that the proposed site is, without a doubt, a drive to location.The site limits the ability of children to walk and bike to school and will increase traffic impacts throughout town.

Again, circles represent a half-mile radius centered on school campuses. The red circle is centered on the location of the proposed Sebastopol Charter School campus. Note how few homes are located within a half mile of the site.

Circles represent a half-mile radius centered on school campuses. The red circle is centered on the location of the proposed Sebastopol Charter School campus. Note how few homes are located within a half mile of the site. The blue circles are the current Charter School locations, yellow are Sebastopol Union School District campuses and purple is another elementary school site. The dashed line indicates the city’s Urban Growth Boundary.

As I have pointed out previously, even though the site is on a multi-use trail, it is simply too far from the residential neighborhoods for most students to walk or bike. Plus the fact that the trail runs through a predominately rural landscape with no eyes to supervise activity. I am a huge proponent of kids learning to get themselves around on their own (ask my daughter) and even I would not let my daughter walk alone on the trail. Even for the neighborhoods that are closest to the site, the only real route to the school would be along a state highway with strip development on both sides. It’s a completely car-oriented, pedestrian hostile environment 

The council discussed possible mitigation measure which included sidewalks, crosswalks and other traffic control measures, all of which are likely cost-prohibitive for the school to take on, and in the end I don’t know if they would really improve the walkability/bikability of the location.

The current city council clearly understands that we need to be creating more opportunities for our community to get around town without the need of a car. This serves not only those in the community that cannot drive, like our children, but all of us that want to live in a more human-scaled environment. At the same meeting, the council approved an ordinance prohibiting any future drive-through uses. (The city has had an ordinance against fast food drive-throughs for some time. They instituted a temporary moratorium on drive-throughs a couple of years ago, I think in response to the effort of CVS to build a new store with a drive-through downtown. The CVS project abandoned both the pharmacy drive-through and a drive-through ATM.)

The council expressed concern that the proposed school would be outside the city’s urban growth boundary which was approved by voters nearly 20 years ago. The urban growth boundary was implemented to preserve surrounding rural open space, focus future development in already developed areas of town and prevent auto-oriented sprawl. The proposed school site is clearly auto-oriented sprawl and not in the best interest of the larger community.


Current Sebastopol Charter School location on Main Street. The school occupies the second floor and the ground floor on the side street. The Main Street frontage includes 3 locally-owned retail businesses.

The school, I’m sure, intendeds to be on this site for decades. Decades of parents forced to drive their children to school. And why? Because it was the original vision for the Charter School. Well, that vision is simply out of date. We know more now than we did when that vision was created. The vision needs to evolve to the reality of a world facing the catastrophic impacts of climate change. The school does not need this property to succeed. The school is a model of success in the charter school Waldorf movement. Classes are full and most have waiting lists. Parents are not choosing this school because it might someday be located on a 20 acre campus, with gardens and orchards. Parents are choosing this school because of the excellent education children receive. They are choosing it for the community of teachers and parents, and the values the school teaches. My daughter has been at this school for 9 years. She’ll graduate in the spring. She has received a top notch education that I will always be thankful for. And she has done it while attending the school in its current configuration.

This is an important land use decision that should not be rubber stamped. The city council will be sending a letter to the counting stating that they do not feel the proposed site is an appropriate location for a school. The ultimate decision will lie with the county planning commission. I hope they take the opinions of the Sebastopol City Council to heart and see that this is not an appropriate location for a new school in the 21st century. The proposed school location is what sprawl looks like. It’s an example of the way we’ve been building schools in the era of the automobile. It’s not a model of how we should be building schools.

For more information on the proposed school site see this link.

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This post is a continuation of 2 previous posts which can be viewed here and here.

During my time on the Sebastopol Charter School facilities committee and the Charter Foundation board, I presented several schemes for the expansion of the downtown campus. One missed opportunity that still haunts me is when a property near the downtown campus was put on the market. The property had been an auto repair shop and it shares a property line with Ives Park. It would have been a great campus for the K-2 classes with the ability to have a direct connection to the park, and only being a block away from the 3-8 campus. This was during the time when the school was in negotiations for the Pine Crest campus which was being vacated by the Sebastopol Shool District. At the time it seemed likely that the school would be moving into the Pine Crest campus. When the school realized the lease was not going to happen we made some inquiries into the for sale property, only to find it had entered escrow the week before. I had suggested looking at the property a couple months earlier to the chairwoman of the facilities committee. She told me she had already looked at it and it wasn’t large enough. I will always regret not pushing the issue harder because it would have been a great solution and avoided the situation we are in now. (Plus the property was sold to another auto repair shop, not the best and highest use of a downtown property with significant access to a public park.)

But even without this site, there are other opportunities to expand the downtown campus. There are two underutilized properties on the block shared by the downtown campus, which are ripe for redevelopment. One is a city parking lot that shares a property line with the school and is used by the school for pick-up and drop-off as well as faculty/staff parking. It is not used much otherwise. (The City of Sebastopol conducted a parking lot survey in 2010. The study found this parking lot was underutilized with an average space occupancy of 22%. The study suggested this lot could be redeveloped and put to better use.) The lot is about 0.7 acres and if acquired by the school would about double the size of the existing downtown campus. I produced several sketches for how this additional land could be used to accommodate the K-2 classes a multi-purpose facility and additional open space. One option would be to add the classroom space on the current campus and use the parking lot exclusively for additional open space, which could be shared by the community after hours. The other would develop buildings and open space on the parking lot site. The newly created open space could be shared with the public outside of school hours, similar to many other school campuses.

South High Street Parking Lot

South High Street Parking Lot

Obviously, expanding into the school parking lot would require the city to sell, or lease it to the school. There have been several very preliminary conversations about this with various city officials which were generally favorable. It would not necessarily be easy or inexpensive, but certainly no more difficult or more expensive than developing a 20 acre campus from scratch outside of town. And it allows us to continue to use the existing downtown campus which is paid for, and it preserves our community identity and connections. We would not end up with anything near 20 acres, but I question why the school leadership thinks we need that much land.

Another possibility would be to expand into the second underutilized property on the block which fronts Main Street. This site currently houses a tacqueria, deli, auto repair shop and self-service laundry, in addition to parking. Not the highest and best use of a prominent Main Street parcel. The school could develop a mixed-use building on this property similar to the existing downtown campus which would have the added benefits of redeveloping an eye-sore site into a more appropriate urban building and be a source of income for the school. This site is 0.8 acres and also shares a property line with the existing downtown campus.

Underutilized Main Street Property

Underutilized Main Street Property – ‘Tacqueria’ Site

Both of these parcels have a storm drain easement across the northern 40′ which cannot be built upon (this easement contains Ives Creek which enters a culvert across the street at the edge of Ives Park and is undergrounded for several blocks). However, there is still adequate space for development. Either parcel provides enough space to add the additional classrooms and open space on it’s own, but developing both would allow for even more open space and could certainly be an option. If all 3 parcels were developed for the school, the total area of the land would be 2.18 acres. But, if you include Ives Park, which is directly across the street from the parking lot property and which the school already use regularly for recess, the total effective size of the school campus could be as much as 6.5 acres. Granted, the park is not private so the students have to share it with other users, but it is not heavily used during the school day, as most children are in school.

Sebastopol Charter School possible downtown expansion sites

Sebastopol Charter School possible downtown expansion sites

I must admit that Ives Park is not in the best condition. It’s old and worn. Many sidewalks are uneven and not accessible. The creek which runs through the center of the Park is in a concrete channel for most of its journey across the park with chain link fences on either side. The play equipment is not all that fun. There isn’t a good large grassy area to play soccer or kickball. However, the city does have an approved Master Plan for the renovation of the park and is pursuing money for the implementation of that plan. The Master Plan includes new accessible walkways, new lighting, naturalizing of the creek and removing the chain link fence, new play equipment and expanded lawn areas The Master Plan also includes a proposal to increase the size of the park by reclaiming land used for an adjacent street which shortcuts a ‘T’ intersection and saves a few seconds of travel time for people in cars, but which creates a difficult street crossing for pedestrians. What if instead of spending money developing a new campus on the edge of town the school made a contribution to the Ives Park Master Plan implementation? Think of how that would strengthen our bonds with the community by helping to improve a shared resource for the benefit of all.

As we look for ways to deal with climate change we must think creatively and learn how to share resources. The existing school location allows resources to be shared throughout our community. In addition to having a park across the street the school is located a block from the public library. Why would we need our own library when the public library is so close and accessible? Many students regularly walk to the library after school. It’s a great opportunity for them. The Sebastopol Center for the Arts is across the street. They have an auditorium that is available for rent. By renting the existing auditorium the school does not need to build and maintain their own, and they also benefit a local non-profit. We could also rent parking spaces from the Center for the Arts, which is not used much during the day, instead of renting the spaces in the city parking lot. Again, this would provide some revenue for a local non-profit. There are many opportunities to share resources with other organizations downtown. This isn’t to say we can’t share resources from the school’s proposed new site, however we cannot easily walk or bike between them. We are a much more integral part of the community at the downtown location. The school is known locally as the downtown charter school.

Locations of existing (in blue) and proposed (in red) Sebastopol Charter School Campuses

Locations of existing (in blue) and proposed (in red) Sebastopol Charter School Campuses

The proposed school campus is 20 acres. There is no way we can get that much space and stay in town. But why does a school of 275 students need 20 acres? Expanding the downtown campus will put some the desires of some in the school community off the table. We will not be able to have a large biodynamic garden at an in-town location. We could certainly develop smaller gardening plots in town, but we’ll never have livestock. We will not be able to plant an orchard, but could certainly plant some fruit trees. Teachers will not be able to open their classroom doors and let the children run free. If going to the park, they will need to walk together and cross the street in an orderly fashion, but I don’t see this as a bad thing. It teaches the children how to live in a community, and how to be aware of streets and cars. I’m sure there are other items on the schools wish list that will need to be scaled down, or eliminated entirely, by expanding the downtown campus instead of relocating to the out-of-town location. But will those ‘sacrifices’ impair the mission of the school to educate children in a public school using a Waldorf curriculum? I don’t believe so. There are plenty of successful Waldorf schools around the world in more urban locations. And I believe the education my daughter, who has spent 8 years at the school, has received has been great.

The impacts of climate change are becoming more evident every day. (We’re experiencing the driest year on record here.) Scientists are confident that the burning of fossil fuels by humans are the cause of climate change (Human Influence on Climate Clear, IPCC Report Says). For the most part we continue to ignore the signs and continue on with business as usual. We need to wake up, and soon, to the fact that we cannot continue developing in this sprawling manner if we hope to slow the impacts of climate change. We need to make quick and substantial reductions to the amount of carbon we are putting into the atmosphere. I believe we owe it to our children and their children. The existing downtown location is much more centrally located in Sebastopol and allows for the most students to be able to walk and bike to school safely and is a far more appropriate site for a school.

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