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Griffin School enrollment causes trouble at City Hall

Wednesday, June 17, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

Last week, Austin’s Griffin School went to the Board of Adjustment to ask for a variance crucial to its continued operation.

Griffin is a private liberal arts school at 5000 Martin Ave. in Hyde Park that teaches students in grades 9-12. Its current enrollment exceeds caps placed on the school five years ago by two separate city bodies, and plans to expand the school need their permission to move forward. Last Monday, the Board of Adjustment voted unanimously to postpone the case until next month.

Husch Blackwell attorney Nikelle Meade represented the Griffin School. Meade was asking for an adjustment to a variance granted in 2010. That variance decreased the minimum street width requirements for a secondary school from 40 feet to about 27 feet.

Though the variance came with a condition to cap enrollment at 68 students, enrollment is now at 93. The school hopes to increase that number to 125 and construct a new building.

Meade explained that the school had misinterpreted the meaning of the cap, thereby explaining the increased enrollment. She said that when the school recently submitted a site plan to build a two-story addition, even city staff wasn’t clear whether a new variance would be required.

“Everybody went back and looked at the videos of the hearing. It was really, essentially, unclear. We couldn’t tell what was intended,” said Meade. “City staff decided — and we agreed — that we just needed to come back to the board to ask to have the variance amended.”

Chair Jeff Jack did not exhibit a similar level of confusion.

“I was on the board when we passed this,” he said. “I don’t think there was any ambiguity. … I remember the night quite clearly, and 68 was the limit. So I’m very surprised to hear that we have 93 right now. That bothers me.”

The board voted to postpone the case and suggested the school work out the details of its future plans with neighborhood opponents at more length. Currently, the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association supports the variance and a cap on enrollment of 125 students, which the school has agreed to cement in a restrictive covenant.

The school has also established a mitigation plan with the neighborhood that includes using parking permits, creating a staggered schedule so not all students arrive or leave at the same time, hiring a traffic monitor, implementing a one-way traffic-flow plan on Evans and Martin avenues and creating penalties for parking violations. Additionally, all students will have to park in a remote lot.

However, not all neighbors are in support of the new variance.

Dwayne Barnes spoke for a group of neighbors gathered at the podium behind him. He said they opposed the variance “entirely” and believed the growth of the school would not be manageable because the infrastructure isn’t there to support it. Most of their concerns centered around parking and traffic.

“We strongly oppose tampering with the limits placed on the school by this board in 2010, as they were purposefully designed to address the issue of traffic safety on our streets, which are just two-thirds of the required width for this use,” said Barnes. “We beg that you guys give us the tools that we need to preserve our safety and our quality of life in our neighborhood.”

Barnes said that the school could widen the road, despite their claims in 2010, though he allowed that it “wasn’t anyone’s favorite idea.”

Barnes also pointed out that when the Planning Commission approved the Conditional Use Permit required to operate a school in an SF-3 zoning district, commissioners limited enrollment to 53. The school will also revisit that Conditional Use Permit with the revised enrollment numbers.

Meade stressed that the Austin Fire Department has signed off on 125 students in writing and stated that the increased enrollment would not pose a safety hazard. Jack questioned that statement and said that the pertinent part of the issue — whether a firetruck could access the school — had not been directly addressed. The board asked for more information about firetruck access when the case returns.

Although Board Member Brian King will not be returning to the Board of Adjustment when it expands next month, he said he would not support the variance “at all.”

“It’s almost a 100 percent increase over what we looked at before, and we diligently looked at it. … We looked at it because of the way that these streets are configured into a dead-end, and not a throughput on each side,” said King. “Beyond that, it’s a blatant disregard to the CUP. Although this may be a very good school, they’re being very bad players.”

Other Board of Adjustment members were less severe. Board Member Melissa Hawthorne acknowledged that the school has a lot of support but said that support from students and parents who live across town doesn’t mean as much as the opinions of those who live next door. She asked for more information on where the parents supporting the variance live.

And Board Member Sallie Burchett took time to stress the value of the school.

“From a community development perspective, I think this is a great project. I think we need land uses like this inside our neighborhoods,” said Burchett. “Families are moving out of our jurisdiction to the suburbs. The way our demographics are changing, I think we need projects like this and should support them.”

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