A car drives down Latham Drive during pick up time at Country Day. (Photo by Arikta Trivedi)

Sierra homeowners appeal SCDS increase in building space, enrollment cap due to traffic concerns (VIDEO INCLUDED)

Sierra homeowners who live near Country Day have appealed the city’s approval of Country Day’s plan to increase building space and enrollment. An appeal hearing is set for Nov. 12.

The school seeks permission to replace its Multipurpose Room and L-shaped middle school building with two separate two-story structures and grow its enrollment from 544 to 596 students .

The neighbors do not want the school to expand, mainly because of traffic congestion. In their appeal, they say that more students will worsen the traffic, worsen the parking, and reduce quality of life in the neighborhood.

Country Day’s plans were approved on Aug. 22 by Zoning Administrator Evan Compton of the City of Sacramento. The approval modified the school’s Conditional Use Permit (CUP).

Shortly after the approval, 30 Sierra Oaks-area residents appealed the city’s decision. The appeal hearing with the city was originally scheduled for Sept. 24, but was delayed to Nov. 12.

“The school asked for a continuance until Oct. 22 (and then again to Nov. 12) because the neighbors would like more time to work with us to come up with a mutually agreeable solution,” said Lee Thomsen, head of school. “We have met in-person twice, and we’re talking about what they’re looking for, what we would be willing to concede. We’re in the stages of haggling, not there yet, but I hope we’ll be able to reach an agreement so we don’t have to go to an appeal at all.”

Thomsen said the most important element of the permit modification is the enrollment increase for the whole school and especially the high school, which would grow from 144 to 180.

According to the original request, because of the small size of the high school compared with the middle school, most students leave Country Day in 8th grade. “SCDS fears that the high school will stagnate or become unviable if not permitted to grow beyond the current cap of 144 students,” according to the school’s request.

The neighbors oppose the growth.

More traffic makes the neighborhood less livable, less desirable and increases the risks to pedestrians.”
— The Neighbors

“More students help SCDS economically but do not benefit the surrounding residential neighborhood. More traffic makes the neighborhood less livable, less desirable and increases the risks to pedestrians,” the neighbors wrote in their appeal.

Evans, who helped write the appeal, said that traffic is the main issue.

“We really felt the decision was the wrong decision, for a variety of reasons. The environment being one, and the traffic and the overall congestion issues,” Evans said of the city’s approval.

“It’s not that we don’t want the school here, just not the excess traffic. Anecdotally, there have been many instances of almost getting hit,” Evans said. “Also, in one case, a man was turning right on Munroe from Latham, and apparently he didn’t turn fast enough; the parent in the car behind him got out of her car started yelling at him that ‘You old people have nothing better to do than sit and wait!’ That’s not, of course, typical, but you remember items like that.”

The approval is subject to a number of conditions. Country Day has agreed to contribute $150,000, an estimated 20% of the total cost to construct a traffic light at the intersection of Munroe Street and Latham Drive. The school also must follow other city ordinances, add shared bikes and 55 more bicycle parking spaces.

 In their appeal, the neighbors state these measures are useless and contrived. 

“There is no justification that this constitutes legitimate mitigation for traffic impacts. These bicycle spaces will most certainly go unused because students will still be driven to school,” the appeal states.

The biggest concern with the traffic is “not being able to use the neighborhood at certain times,” Evans said, “not being able to walk around the school when it’s congested. It’s just not easy like that. For some people they cannot get out of their driveways when that happens.”

Evans wants to see long-term traffic mitigation for not only Country Day, but Sierra Oaks Elementary School, which is down the street from Country Day.

“The people on Latham Drive are affected by both schools,” she said. “We should be doing this for this generation of students to improve the environment. That would be reducing the vehicle miles traveled, which would also improve the traffic issue.”

A 2019 traffic study conducted by a third party, DKS Associates, as part of Country Day’s application concluded that the addition of 50 students would have minimal impact on traffic.

2%

Increase in traffic

– DKS Associates, 2019

The city considered the traffic study in its decision to approve the CUP, but the neighbors maintain that the traffic study report was “based on unrepresentative and factually inaccurate data.”

The neighbors also allege that they were cut out of the decision-making process.

“The city made a bilateral agreement with the school, leaving out the neighbors,’ Evans said. “When this came up 25 years ago, the city council member representing us involved us intimately in it. This time, we were cut out of the process. That has been very upsetting.” 

The neighbors also argue that the proposed plan violates the Sierra Homeowner’s Agreement, a contract between the school and the neighbors signed in 1996 that lays out specific steps for school expansion.

Evans said the neighbors were upset about Country Day’s lack of follow-through on items listed in the Agreement, such as the off-site parking lot rented by SCDS. Evans said it has not been used at all. 

“The school has done a very good job since 1996 in managing the parking on Latham. I just wish they were more willing to consider long-term solutions that would relieve the traffic and mean that we wouldn’t have a fight every time there’s a discussion about increasing enrollment,” Evans said.

Thomsen said circumstances have changed since 1996, when the Agreement was signed.

“They are essentially saying twenty-some years ago you all talked about doing this and this, and now you’ve changed your mind,” Thomsen said. “Which is just what happens over a period of 25 years.”

“The biggest sticking point is the piece about the high school,” Thomsen said. “In 1996, the school at that point was planning to open a second campus somewhere and making a separate Country Day high school which would be larger so it could compete in size with schools like Jesuit and Saint Francis. There were several attempts to move the high school, which fell through. The school spent close to $2 million trying to make that happen.”

Thomsen also said the Sierra Homeowners Agreement is separate from the city, and without the city as a party, it’s completely separated from the CUP that was approved for the school.

Concerning the city, Evans said administrators didn’t have the big picture in mind.

“They liked the idea of having the school help pay for the signal,’ Evans said, “whether we want a signal or not, and they don’t have a long-term interest in this. They’re looking at very quick solutions.”

Evans said the neighbors would be prepared to sue the school.

“But suing the school also isn’t a permanent solution,” she said. “This agreement between the school and the city also isn’t a permanent solution. What happens the next time the school wants to grow? A multi-modal, more visionary traffic plan would address that. Our generation should be ashamed of the smog we leave you, of climate change, of the various challenges they’re going to have to live with. This doesn’t have to be a battle with the school, it could be a partnership. And that’s what we seek.”

Moving the high school is not in the SCDS plan anymore, Thomsen said. 

“That’s just not a reality. And given that, we’d like to make the high school a little bigger, not to make it giant, to give us some flexibility,” Thomsen said. Details on how to join the Nov. 12 hearing will be posted here, approximately a week before the hearing date.

— By Nihal Gulati

— Video by Dylan Margolis, Arijit Trivedi and Ming Zhu

Originally published in the Oct. 20 edition of the Octagon.