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Griffin School faces another delay

Friday, August 14, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

After yet another postponement at the Board of Adjustment, the fate of the Griffin School remains unclear. Board members warned that this postponement would be the last.

The school, which is located at 5000 Martin Ave. in Hyde Park, is seeking 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, on the condition that student enrollment would be capped at 68. The school has a current enrollment of 93 and hopes to construct a new building and expand to 125 students, and will need a variance from the board for that to be legal.

Board Member Michael Von Ohlen pointed out that the board had postponed the case “for months now.” He said he would support the postponement, but warned that it was the last one. He warned those in attendance that he would make a motion next month “one way or another” if someone else on the board didn’t.

“I think you guys are pretty close. … I’m ready to make a motion to approve, but I don’t want to do that without giving everybody one last shot,” said Von Ohlen.

The school has agreed to a restrictive covenant with the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association. That covenant caps the number of students at 125. Additionally, the school has promised to implement a traffic-control plan, parking permits for students, overflow parking, a passenger-loading zone and a parking-violation enforcement plan. The school will also send a mailer to all student households in addition to holding a mandatory information session for parents, students and teachers. The school also agreed to a $10,000 performance bond ensuring the covenant, according to Husch Blackwell attorney Nikelle Meade, who represented the Griffin School at the board hearing.

Meade told board members that Adam Wilson, the director of the school, “had really gone above and beyond” to work with the few households that opposed the variance, but after two meetings designed to address those neighbors specifically, Meade said they “just are not getting any feedback.”

“We are taking their concerns into account, we are making changes to both the agreement and the design, and we just have felt like we are not having a negotiation partner here. We are just kind of throwing things out there … and then we don’t hear anything,” said Meade. “Hyde Park Neighborhood Association has stepped up, and I can tell you that they really didn’t want to do it, because they are in support of this variance.” She pointed out that the majority of close neighbors supported the variance request.

Elizabeth Arthur, who lives within 500 feet of the property, spoke in opposition. She explained that the group opposing the variance had been “very clear” that the $10,000 bond was insufficient, and they did not want the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association to be the party regulating compliance with the variance.

“The (restrictive covenant), as drafted, has tons of wiggle room in it,” said Arthur. “We have been trying to work with them. We express our concerns, and then these things are crammed down on us at the last minute. I take great umbrage with what was presented to you earlier.”

Meade explained that the covenant was established with the neighborhood association because there was really no one else to make the agreement with. She assured the board members that the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association was the right choice to be the enforcer of the agreement, and all of the “reasonable” complaints by the opponents were included in the covenant.

“I don’t want to speak on the behalf of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association, but I can tell you that they are looking out for their members. They are not trying to roll over the neighbors and do something that is detrimental to the neighborhood. As you all know, they are not easy to negotiate with,” said Meade.

Board Member Melissa Hawthorne agreed with Meade’s assessment.

“You don’t get many letters of support from Hyde Park,” said Hawthorne. “When you see one you know, wow, that was not a small bit of effort.”

Von Ohlen noted that the neighborhood association had the additional benefit of being an officially recognized entity by the state and city. Additionally, though they didn’t realize it at the time, the individual opponents can be parties to the restrictive covenant as members of the neighborhood association.

Dwayne Barnes, who lives across the street from the school, said that they were “very open to negotiation” with the school, and not just working to block the variance. To the contrary, Barnes said, Wilson had delayed producing relevant documents until the Friday before the Board of Adjustment meeting, which was held on Monday. He also questioned the veracity of a letter from the Austin Fire Department that states the variance is safe.

Board Member William Burkhardt said that it appeared that there was still work to be done on the covenant, including the “assurance of good faith,” and recommended that they allow an extra month for that work to be done. Postponement of the case will not affect the start of Griffin’s school year.

“Right now, I guess I feel as though the aggrieved parties are still waiting for some validation of their concerns,” said Burkhardt. “I’m not happy with the idea of the postponement, it’s just that the restrictive covenant isn’t worked out. If they get the (variance), they have no real leverage.”

Illustration by Wenceslaus Hollar [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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