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Posts Tagged ‘school siting’

(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.

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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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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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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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As discussed previously, the Sebastopol Charter School (SCS) is in contract to purchase a 20 acre property at the northern edge of Sebastopol to develop a new campus. The move will relocate the children which are currently located on 2 campuses in town. Grades K-2 are located in modular classroom buildings adjacent to Brook Haven School. Grades 3-8 are located in a mixed-use building downtown on Main Street. As mentioned in the previous post, the current campus locations allow for a larger number of students to walk and bike than the proposed campus location. In addition to being a drive-to location, the development of the new school is a waste of resources in a town with excess classroom capacity.

The number of school aged children has been dropping in Sebastopol for years and the demographic signs indicate that trend will continue. In the 1995-96 school year, there were 1,400 students enrolled in K-8 programs in the Sebastopol school district. (1995 was also, coincidentally, the first year the Sebastopol Charter School opened its doors, starting with one kindergarten class.) Those 1,400 students were housed in 3 campuses, Park Side, Pine Crest and Brook Haven. In the 2012-13 school year the Sebastopol school district had 1,018 students, which includes 275 students enrolled at the Sebastopol Charter School and 132 students enrolled in the REACH Charter School both of which are chartered in the Sebastopol Union School District (SUSD). SUSD is projecting a further drop of almost 100 students by the 2015-16 school year.

Circles indicate a half mile radius centered on existing school campuses. Yellow indicates Sebastopol School District campuses, blue indicates Sebastopol Charter School  campuses and purple indicates Sun Ridge/Reach campus

Circles indicate a half mile radius centered on existing school campuses. Yellow indicates Sebastopol School District campuses, blue indicates Sebastopol Charter School campuses and purple indicates Sun Ridge/Reach campus. Dashed line indicates Sebastopol city limits.

It seems safe to assume that if there were once 1,400 students in the district, there must be desk space for 1,400 in the 3 schools in existence at that time. Since then, the SCS has developed its own two campuses which added approximately 275 desks. So there should currently be space for at least 1,675 students in a school district of 1,018 students.

Faced with the declining enrollment, SUSD decided to close a school campus beginning in the 2011-12 academic year. The SCS attempted to negotiate a lease to move into the vacated Pine Crest School, but could not come to terms with the district. (The sticking point was primarily over the length of the lease with the SCS wanting a longer lease period than the SUSD was willing to provide. The SCS was also pushing the district to sell the campus outright, which the district was not interested in pursuing.) The Pine Crest campus is currently leased to the REACH Charter School and Sun Ridge School, which is a charter school from a neighboring school district. Even adding the students enrolled in Sun Ridge school (252 in the 2012-13 school year), there should still be more than 400 empty desks in the school district. And while it has been dismissed for the time being, SUSD has considered the possibility of closing an additional campus, which would create even more vacant classrooms. So why is the SCS proposing to build another school, with a capacity of 275 students in a school district with more than 400 desks available in existing school facilities? And in a location that is less walkable/bikeable than existing school campus locations.

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.

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.

The biggest explanation is the desire of the SCS school board to have all the students in one location. While this may have been the original vision of the school, it does not take into consideration a world of dwindling resources, and one in which we are realizing the global environmental impact of auto-oriented development. Visions need to adapt to their times rather than be fixed and inflexible. By remaining steadfast to this vision without considering new realities, the school is about to embark on the development of a new campus that will contribute to current environmental problems, rather than working to solve them. The school should look to take advantage of the fact that there are vacant classrooms in our community, even if this means the continuation of a split campus. There are worse things.

Another reason is the desire by some in the school leadership for a more rural and pastoral campus. The school was founded as a public alternative to private Waldorf education. There is a nearby private Waldorf school, Summerfield, that is located in a rural setting of 30+ acres and includes grades K-12. I believe some people still see this as being an ideal type of campus for the Waldorf curriculum which often includes a biodynamic farm component. While it may be a nice addition, there are many Waldorf schools that do not include a biodynamic farm. I do not believe my daughter’s education, physical, emotional or spiritual development has been limited by not having access to a biodynamic farm as part of her education.

A third reason I could see why the school wants to move would be to have more space. While I acknowledge space is tight at the current downtown campus there are options. I have developed several schematic plans to expand the downtown campus which will be included in a future post. And again, facing our new reality, we could all learn to adjust to living with less space, which the school has done quite successfully to this point. Again, I do not believe my own daughter has suffered from being on a school campus with a limited amount of space. In many ways I think there is much to learn from being in tighter quarters, like having respect for the space of those around you and learning to share.

Other than the attempt to lease Pine Crest, there has not, to my knowledge, been any discussion with the SUSD in regards to other alternatives. There was a discussion in a SCS school facilities committee meeting in the summer of 2013 about starting a dialogue with the SUSD, and the other 2 charter schools in town, to discuss alternatives for accommodating all of the students in the district. As I’ve already discussed, there must be vacant classrooms in the district so it seems that if we were to open an honest conversation with the district, and the other 2 schools, we may be able to discover a win-win situation for all involved. Rather than each of us pursuing our facilities needs without stepping back and looking at the larger picture. But soon after that facilities meeting the SCS school board decided to move forward with the purchase of the out of town property.

The new property is 20 acres located outside the northern boundary of town. Although it is located on a bike path which skirts the northern boundary of Sebastopol, it’s not in a very walkable bikeable location. Looking again at the image, you can see that the new location will be out of reach for many of the families that live in Sebastopol. This is not a good move for the school, or the larger community which will have the impact of increased traffic from parents driving children to school, and then having to drive into town to run errands, go to work, etc.

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.

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.

The SCS school board owes it to the school families to thoroughly evaluate all alternatives before embarking on an expensive, and expansive, new school campus project. I know there was a great deal of frustration in the dealing with the SUSD over the lease for Pine Crest and I believe this is one reason the school board did not open the dialogue again. But it is a waste of resources to build another school in Sebastopol at this time. And the auto-oriented location will have implications for our community for decades to come. As can be seen in these images, the current school locations are evenly distributed around town and are more walkable and bikeable. The schools are distributed really well right now. We should be taking advantage of the existing capacity of the in-town schools, not building more schools where few will have the ability to walk/bike to them.

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