Sebastopol Independent Charter School seeks approval for new campus

October 24, 2016

The Press Democrat
October 24, 2016

Parents and representatives of a popular Sebastopol charter school will make a stand before county supervisors today in hopes they can finally win approval for construction of a permanent campus at the north edge of town.

Consent from the board of supervisors would allow the Sebastopol Independent Charter School to move toward construction of a new campus on 20 acres the school already owns, allowing nearly 300 students currently being taught at two different sites to attend classes at the same location.

The county planning staff supports the plan and has recommended the board of supervisors approve the request, along with a 16-page list of conditions governing everything from noise and parking to water conservation and erosion control to ensure there are no negative impacts.

But the path to securing permission for the project has been a challenging one, so any hopes of success are, by necessity, restrained ones, said Bob Haroche, president of The Charter Foundation, the school’s main fundraising group.

Even after continued modifications to the proposal made to address concerns from neighbors and others about traffic, circulation, access and other factors, Haroche said he would hold off on any celebration until the five-member board had actually voted, though “I’m cautiously optimistic,” he said Monday.

The 20-year-old, Waldorf-inspired school has acquired 20 acres of land just beyond city limits, east of Highway 116/Gravenstein Highway North and just north of Mill Station Road and the O’Reilly Media campus. The property is bounded on the east by Hurlbut Avenue, on the north by Apple Blossom and on the south by the West County Regional Trail.

The school hopes eventually to accommodate up to 360 students in six classroom buildings, with play fields, an amphitheater and basketball courts, though the campus would cover less than half of the acreage.

But thorny issues have arisen, particularly related to traffic circulation and plans to have the school driveway cross the county bike and pedestrian trail from the tail of Mill Station Road at O’Reilly Media.

Despite plans for a 10 mph speed limit and stop signs on each side of the trail, where cars would yield to walkers and riders, as well as warning notices, concrete bollards, striping and other means of alerting cyclists to a crossroads, many oppose allowing access to the campus across the trail.

Others in the neighborhood fear school commuters will clog adjoining county roads with unwanted, speeding traffic, though the county’s use permit would prohibit use of those streets by students and parents, and the school has pledged to enforce an off-limits rule.

The Sebastopol City council has weighed in as well, voicing concerns about cross-town traffic and the safety of children traveling to school in areas where some roads lack sidewalks or safe crossings — an individual concern for Mayor Sarah Glade Gurney, as well, she said.

“I”m talking about the charter school families who are going to be traveling to that location from the west, the south and the east,” Gurney said. “...I believe the charter school people intend to continue walking and riding bikes to that location, and I just see it as a drive-to location.”

Among the improvements the school has pledged to undertake is a pedestrian crossing on Highway 116 at Danmar Lane, where an overhead flasher would alert motorists to people in the crosswalk.

At the city’s request, the school also took on an extra round of traffic studies, expanding its scrutiny of surrounding intersections to 11 to ensure the school would not overburden nearby crossings.

In the meantime, the new school location would eliminate 77 daily cross-town trips by parents picking up or dropping off children at two different campuses.

School supporters also note that, if developed for housing under the rural residential designation, the property could be built up with 10 homes, each with a second, legal unit. The school, clustered toward the center and east side of the property, would cover less than 10 acres, leaving the remaining property for orchards, gardens and open space.

The charter school community had hoped to have this decision behind it last June, with a hearing before the county Board of Zoning Adjustments, but resistance from some neighbors and from the city of Sebastopol itself necessitated additional traffic studies and refinement of the plan.

The investments have been worth it, Haroche said. “I think the neighbors are learning that we are here, and we are responsive,” he said.

But there remains some opposition to the proposal and, since the June zoning board meeting, when about two dozen speakers took the microphone, the board of supervisors has voted to take over jurisdiction on the matter, at the request of west county Supervisor Efren Carrillo.

It’s likely a long hearing lies ahead today.

A public hearing and board discussion of the requested use permit and related decisions is scheduled to begin at 2:10 p.m. today in Board Chambers, 575 Administration Drive, Room 102A, Santa Rosa.

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