(For background on this issue, see these previous posts: Smart School Siting, Smart School Siting – 2, Smart School Siting – 3, Smart School Siting – 4, Smart School Siting – 5, Charter School Proximity to Residential Neighborhoods.)
It’s taken me awhile to get to writing this, but the long-playing saga of my opposition to the Sebastopol Charter School’s move to an out-of-town location is finally over. And I lost. The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors held a public hearing on the matter on Oct. 23rd. After an approximately 4 hour meeting and around 40 public comments the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the Use Permit application. So the City of Sebastopol is about to get a new charter school campus outside its Urban Growth Boundary.
I must say I’m not surprised by the outcome. The school has been working on this for years and did a very good job meeting with supervisors beforehand and doing their political homework. And who can say ‘no’ to a school? I always knew it would be an uphill battle for me and to be honest I didn’t always have the time or energy required to really fight this. But when I did, I was surprised about how little support I received in my opposition. Maybe it’s just me and this really is a great idea. I find it hard to believe.
The most support I received came from the Sebastopol City Council. They wrote 3 letters expressing opposition to the project. But to be honest, the letters were less opposition to the project than opposition to the impacts of the project to local traffic. Not one of them said simply, ‘We do not want this school to be located on this site outside of our Urban Growth Boundary.’ They talked about traffic impacts, and concern about safety for kids walking and biking to a location that while located adjacent to a bike/walking trail is not a very walkable location and asked that these things be ‘mitigated’. One council member went with me to meet with the supervisor who represents the district, but not a single city council member attended the hearing. A fact that was not missed on the supervisors. The supervisor with whom we had met noted that if this issue was so important to the city council he would of expected ‘at least one of them’ to show up at the public hearing. I don’t disagree. Would it have made a difference? Probably not.
I tried to solicit support from the Greenbelt Alliance. The Greenbelt Alliance has been working for years to protect open space in the Bay Area and has been a leader in the establishment of Urban Growth Boundaries. But when this school proposal came forward directly outside the UGB, the local representative was told not to get involved. Isn’t this what they are about, protecting the open space outside the UGB? I’m not sure why we go to the trouble if we just sit back and watch auto-oriented projects get built outside the UGB. It seems like a waste of time if the UGB is not used to actually focus urban growth within the boundary. The head of the county planning department said this was a great ‘infill opportunity project’. Really? This is infill development? Outside the edge of town? Am I missing the boat on understanding infill development?
I tried to solicit several other local non-profits to get involved, without luck. Again, probably would not have made a difference. The Board of Supervisors saw a great opportunity for an ‘infill site’. There was some concern expressed by several of the supervisors about hundreds of cars crossing the bike trail on a daily basis (as the applicant pointed out this would only happen the 180 days a year or so that school is in session), but not enough concern to withhold their approval of the project. The Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition did write a letter and speak out about the crossing of the bike path. But not on the inappropriateness of the site for a school.
We are a completely auto-oriented society and will continue to be if we keep expanding our auto-oriented development patterns. A real opportunity to create a 21st century in town school has been missed. The school feels confident that walking and biking to school will increase at the new location. I hope they are right, but I just cannot imagine it. Look at the image above. While a 1 mile radius from the existing in town school location basically includes the entire town, a 1 mile radius from the proposed location doesn’t even reach half the town. And the pedestrian/biking infrastructure is horrible to that location. Yes, yes, it is located on a bike path, but nearly every child will have to cross a very busy state highway to get there. I just don’t get it. Children will continue to be driven to school for as long as the school remains open. And we are all the worse off for it.
I must say I’m happy that I don’t have to consume brain space for this anymore. It did weigh on me as my daughter had attended the school, and I actually really like the school and the education my daughter received. I do want to see the school succeed. And it was difficult to be on the opposite side of this issue from many friends. But I still truly believe this is a mistake for our community. We can, and must, do better than this.