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Griffin School variance delayed once again

Wednesday, July 15, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Board of Adjustment once again postponed a crucial variance for the Griffin School on Monday. Though some residents of the surrounding Hyde Park neighborhood continue to oppose the variance, board members expressed hope that the details of a compromise could be hammered out before their next meeting.

Board Member Michael Von Ohlen led the unanimous move to postpone and asked the school to “lock in” a 125-student cap before the next meeting.

“I think we can probably come to a compromise here. … I think we are moving in the right direction. The wheels of bureaucracy move real slow sometimes, folks. We want to make sure we are doing the right thing for the community,” said Von Ohlen.

The school needs the variance to continue its operation. Its current enrollment exceeds a cap placed on the school five years ago by the Board of Adjustment and the Planning Commission. Now, the school is hoping to expand its enrollment even further, and it needs an adjustment to a 2010 variance to move forward. That variance decreased the minimum street-width requirements for a secondary school from 40 feet to about 27 feet.

The Board of Adjusment capped the school’s enrollment at 68 students, and the Planning Commission limited enrollment to 53 in a separate case. The current enrollment is 93 students.

Adam Wilson, who is the co-founder and director of the Griffin School, said that when the previous variance was granted in 2010, he left with the understanding that there was a “really direct correlation between our enrollment and our parking.” If that was a mistake, he said, they were there to address it. He told the board that growing to an enrollment of 125 students was what it would take to be sustainable in the long-term.

“More than anything, I just want to say we didn’t intentionally violate that ruling or try to sneak around it,” said Wilson.

Chair Vincent Harding said that he understood how the cap could have been misinterpreted, given that it limited the number of students or parking spaces, and parking requirements have since changed.

Dwayne Barnes, who lives directly across the street from the school, asked the board not to grant the variance. He said that while the written variance and conditions might be confusing, the discussion at the time the variance was granted in 2010 made it clear that Wilson understood the enrollment cap.

“Whatever the documentation confusion is, there was not confusion at the meeting,” said Barnes.

The cap placed on enrollment in 2010 was not arbitrary, said Barnes. Enrollment was limited because of safety concerns due to the narrow width of the road, he said.

Barnes explained that the lack of curb cuts in the area made for a lot of street parking along the narrow streets. “It doesn’t take that many cars to get dangerous,” he said.

Kathy Lawrence, who is a co-vice president of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association, spoke in favor of the variance and increased enrollment at the school. The neighborhood association has formally supported both prospects. She also praised the Griffin School in a more general sense, calling it “an amazing partner for our neighborhood and community.”

The room was filled with supporters of the school, which is now in its 20th year of operation.

Barnes was also worried about something that wasn’t directly part of the variance request before the board: the school’s plan to build a civic-use building on single-family lots. He said this plan would “forever change the character of the neighborhood” – were the school to leave, he said, the neighborhood could potentially become mixed-use. He pointed out that many of the school’s supporters lived “far from the immediate impact zone of the school.”

Husch Blackwell attorney Nikelle Meade represented the Griffin School. Meade explained that the school does currently meet parking requirements for 125 students, but it has contracted for additional offsite parking at nearby Ridgetop Church to make the situation better. However, as Board Member Melissa Hawthorne pointed out, the parking requirement is different than when the variance was granted in 2010.

Meade said there was no issue with emergency vehicle access to the site. She also provided a map that showed there was not a majority of people near the school who were in opposition to the variance.

Several nearby neighbors spoke in favor of the variance as well.

Margaret Walsh, who also lives near the school, said that she does not consider parking or traffic to be a problem on her street, even though she works from home. She said the school has been open and willing to work with the neighborhood.

Meade told the board that the school is willing to agree to a restrictive covenant capping students at 125, to implement a traffic control plan and to establish a parking-permit program for the school. In addition to the Ridgetop Church parking agreement, the school also created a parking enforcement program, with penalties that include expulsion for violating parking rules.

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