Cars exit and turn onto Latham Drive on Oct. 27 during student pickup. Homeowners state that this high traffic is a danger and "reduces quality of life." (Photo by Arikta Trivedi)

School expansion allowed against neighbors’ appeal

Country Day has won its zoning fight to expand enrollment and modify the campus footprint, but still needs to renegotiate the 1996 Sierra Oaks Homeowners Agreement.

On Nov. 12, the City of Sacramento ruled in favor of the school, overturning a joint appeal by several neighbors in the Latham Drive area. 

The homeowners were appealing an August decision by Zoning Administrator Evan Compton that allowed the school to change its Conditional Use Permit (CUP) to allow a 9% increase in enrollment cap. Specifically, the total school cap would go from 544 to 596 students, including raising the high school cap from 144 to 180.

The now-rejected appeal argued against expansion by stating that the increase would worsen the already busy traffic around student pickup and dropoff, decreasing quality of life for residents of nearby areas.

There were several conditions to the approval, including a payment of $150,000 by the school to help the city install a new traffic light at the Munroe-Latham intersection.

Even though the neighbors’ appeal was denied and the city’s approval of expansion stands, the school cannot increase enrollment yet. A separate agreement exists between the Sierra Oaks Homeowners Association and SCDS that also limits the number of students that can be enrolled. 

So, the school still has to come to an agreement with the neighbors to revise the 1996 Sierra Oaks Homeowners Agreement and increase enrollment, Head of School Lee Thomsen said.

“The fact that we’ve won in the city doesn’t somehow override the agreement with the neighbors,” Thomsen said.

The school attempted to negotiate with the neighbors before the appeal hearing, extending the hearing date twice from Sept. 24 to Oct. 22 and then finally to Nov. 12, in order to avoid the appeal altogether.

“We got to a place where we’re pretty close to coming to an agreement,” Thomsen said. “So we will continue to work on that. We haven’t had any contact with them since the hearing, but we have hopes of trying to come to some arrangement that is satisfactory to both sides. We’ve been granted more students by the city. Let’s see if the neighbors will give us the same increase. We’re asking, ‘What can we do for them above and beyond the CUP terms that would help satisfy their challenges?’”

Ann Evans, one of the writers of the homeowners’ appeal, said that the neighbors are still continuing their push for traffic mitigation strategies.

“I think we knew the appeal was an uphill battle,” Evans said, “So it wasn’t stunning or anything. But the city’s decision doesn’t change the efficacy of our agreement. We’re still trying to get a better, permanent solution for the neighborhood. We started negotiating with the school in September in earnest.”

According to Evans, the school is looking to adjust the enrollment cap in the Sierra Oaks Agreement and is also trying to remove the requirement that the high school be moved if more students are added.

“Our attorney sent a letter to say what our requirements would be to change the agreement,” Evans said. “what we need to have in a new agreement to allow more students at this site.”

Evans said the neighbors’ proposed plan continues the Mitigation Monitoring Committee and the ban on student parking on Latham Drive and Saratoga Circle and asks that SCDS continue a traffic mitigation plan developed in 1996 between the city and school.

“The Country Day traffic management plan that they put together in 1996 was quite good. And we ask that that be continued,” Evans said.

The School’s argument

We’re only asking for a small increase in the enrollment cap so we can have some flexibility in our high school. Our traffic study estimated this will have little impact on traffic flow. We could serve more students and make more of a difference.

Both parties in the Sierra Homeowners Agreement — the school and the neighbors — would have to agree to alter the contract. If the school were to increase enrollment before first changing the agreement, they could be sued by the neighborhood, and Evans told the Octagon in October that the neighbors would be prepared to do so.

The school and neighbors have had a long history of tug-of-war over expansion. The Sierra Oaks Homeowners Agreement established clear rules for the school’s expansion. One of the major arguments in the neighbors’ appeal was that the school was withholding its end of the contract by not taking the steps listed in the agreement for expansion.

The school denies that. Thomsen said that many of the 24-year-old measures, such as moving the high school, are no longer being considered.

“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 told the Octagon in October.

Whenever the school tried to increase enrollment in the past, it’s been shot down by neighborhood petitions. But not this summer, when the school filed a modification request for its CUP.

The most important thing its application asked for was the 9% increase in enrollment. It noted that it would take seven to 10 years to reach this cap. 

The modifications also included a 12,000 square foot increase in allowable building space to replace the Multipurpose Room and middle school “L” building with two-story structures. Replacing these buildings is only a tentative plan several years in the future; no active planning or fundraising has begun on either project. Neither would be built until at least five or ten years from now, Thomsen said.

According to the application, the reason for the requested increases was for the continued stability of the school.

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

The modification request cited a 2019 traffic study conducted by a third party, DKS Associates, which concluded that, given the small size of the increase, the addition of 50 students would have minimal impact on traffic, although the appeal challenged that claim.

The remaining issues in the request were regulatory items, such as extending the five-year limit of the two portable classrooms behind the gym, reducing unused off-site parking at Sierra Arden Community Church (890 Morse Ave.) from 50 spaces to 25 and clarifying the required parking space count on campus.

A City of Sacramento Zoning Director Hearing was scheduled to rule on these items. It met virtually on Aug. 22, through WebEx Webinar, a video-conferencing service used mostly by corporations. Members of the school’s administration presented their proposal, and neighbors opposed to the expansion made statements as well. 

Making Country Day’s case during the hearing, Thomsen said, “We make a difference. We’re asking to make a difference in more students’ lives.”

A week later, Evan Compton of the City of Sacramento approved Country Day’s modifications. 

There were conditions: following city ordinances, adding bicycle parking spaces and creating a shared bike system. Most importantly, the school, being the major traffic source in the area, was asked to contribute a fair share of the cost (an estimated 20%) to a traffic light to be installed at the intersection of Munroe and Latham. This provision of donating $150,000 for the light was actually originally suggested by the school.

After the hearing decision was released, Thomsen said he was pleased with the result. 

“Essentially, we were awarded everything that we were hoping for, which is a new CUP that allows expansion of square footage for future construction projects and allows us to grow to 596 students,”  Thomsen said.

Only a few days after the approval was issued, it was appealed by the neighbors. 

“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 being another,” Evans said of the city’s approval.

“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 appeal stated.

The appeal attacked the current traffic and parking situation, as well as discounting the proposed traffic mitigation measures, such as additional bicycle spaces, as “contrived” and “useless.”

Evans told the Octagon in October that people are sick of “not being able to use the neighborhood at certain times and 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 Country Day.

“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. “What happens the next time the school wants to grow? A multi-modal, more visionary traffic plan would address that.”

The Neighbors’ Argument

We’d be more than happy to let you expand if you fixed your existing traffic and parking problems. Work with us to make a permanent traffic reduction plan that can increase safety and lessen street loads.

After the appeal was issued, the school tried to work with the neighbors and come to a “mutually agreeable solution,” according to Thomsen. No agreement was reached by the Nov. 12 date, so the appeal hearing began.

Arguments from both sides were heard, and there was also a period of public comment.

Senior Elijah Azar spoke in favor of expansion during that time. 

“I essentially described the effect that Country Day has had on me as a person — all positive things — and the fact that enlargement would allow for more students like myself to get scholarship opportunities, Azar said. “That’s why I’m in support.”

However, Azar also supported working with the neighbors to reduce traffic.

“There was also a promise of working with the neighbors to make sure that it’s safe, for example getting traffic officers to observe if necessary. I like that as well,” Azar said.

At the end, the ruling was given in favor of the school.

However, negotiations with the neighbors still have to continue. If the school wants to increase enrollment, the CUP modification isn’t enough until the Sierra Homeowners Agreement is altered. SCDS still has to come up with a mutually agreeable plan that the neighbors will accept, one that gives both expansion and traffic control. So, the talks continue.

— By Nihal Gulati

Originally published in the Dec. 15 edition of the Octagon.

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