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Montessori school on narrow road remains in limbo

Thursday, March 31, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Mariposa Montessori school may have found its ideal location, but without a variance that will allow it to build on the narrow Paisano Trail, plans are stalled.

Currently, Mariposa Montessori is located on Brodie Lane, but it is now looking for a new location that will allow for more space, upgraded facilities and less noise- and air-pollution on campus. The school hopes that location is the 7.28 acres recently purchased at 3338 Paisano Trail, and it recently sought a variance from the Board of Adjustment to move forward with plans for a private primary- and secondary school there. The variance would reduce the required street width by more than half, from 40 feet to a width ranging from 16.65 to 20 feet.

It’s unclear whether that information will secure enough votes for a variance, however. At the March 14 meeting, as Board Member Rahm McDaniel put it, “I like the site. I like the plan. I like the school. I like the whole thing. But, man, that road is narrow.”

Board members voted unanimously to postpone the variance request to their May meeting, with hopes of getting more information at their April meeting about alternate pathways, transportation and drop-off schedules, as well as the possibility of widening the road.

Husch Blackwell’s Alex Jashinsky represented the school at the board. She told board members that the school would be located next to city-owned open space and the Zion Rest Missionary Baptist Church, which supports the project.

Jashinsky said that the road requirement is designed to ensure safe access by school buses and firetrucks. The school does not use buses, however, and the Austin Fire Department (and an independent consultant) have determined that the road will allow the department safe access. Although the road is more than 40 feet wide, only 16 to 20 feet of that is paved because the street is heavily lined with heritage trees and utility lines and is also located in a critical water quality zone.

“This is by far the best site available for the school, but the problem is that it happens to be located on a narrow street,” said Jashinsky.

That was, indeed, a problem for some. McDaniel noted that the fire department endorsement itself was rather narrow, discussing only the ability of a firetruck to use the road. He pointed out that if the road were blocked, emergency vehicles would be forced to take a circuitous route to access the school, which he said gave him real concern.

“In an emergency situation, you’re not just going to have a firetruck,” said McDaniel. “You are going to have whatever the emergency is and a bunch of freaked-out parents going in both directions.”

Other board members homed in on problems that could occur during non-emergency times. The school’s plans to expand to up to 250 students and up to 33 faculty members concerned Board Member Brooke Bailey. She pointed out that, without buses, “parents line the road in the morning and afternoon.”

“All I see is clog,” said Bailey. “Especially with that number of students. There’s no other way to get them in and out of there but on this narrow road. There’s no way, with 250 students, that you are going to have enough on-site areas for them to pull off.”

Jashinsky told the board that the school had been designed in anticipation of those problems, with five staggered start times and eight different end times, to avoid the entire population descending on the school at once.

In terms of physical accommodation, Jashinsky explained, there would be a driveway for parents to wait that is more than 300 feet long and “should give plenty of space for parents” picking up or dropping off students. In terms of parking, there are currently 27 spaces planned (21 are required), and the school and church have agreed to share parking for events.

Chair William Burkhardt expressed concern that there were no plans for sidewalks or trails from Brodie Lane, despite a claim that not all students drove to school.

“I’m concerned that you don’t have pedestrian connections. You are talking about kids walking and riding bikes, and it is a narrow street,” said Burkhardt. “It is going to be a dangerous situation. I think you are asking for a problem.”

In what could be a further complication, the church’s chairman of the trustees, Gilson Westbrook, noted that along Paisano Trail, there are boulders that prevent people from walking onto the land and that the boulders are intended to control water flow, as is the grass. “The whole of Paisano Trail is part of watershed protection,” he said. As a result, the church is “very concerned about adding sidewalks.”

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