Palmetto Bay voters will have a say on whether a local Montessori school may increase its enrollment.
The Village Council has unanimously approved a resolution to allow a special election where some residents will receive a ballot in the mail asking whether they agree for a local Alexander Montessori School campus to increase its enrollment from 270 to 329 students.
Such zoning applications are typically considered by a municipal council through a public hearing instead of vesting the authority in the voters. The upcoming Palmetto Bay referendum, however, stems from a 2009 charter amendment in which 68 percent of village residents who voted agreed to the addition of a charter provision that requires a referendum for a private school to expand.
The charter change came after a long dispute between the village and the Palmer Trinity School over expansion.
According to the new charter provision, residents who live within 2,000 feet of the school should receive a ballot in the mail asking them if they agree with the plans. In order for the zoning plans to continue, 75 percent of those who return their ballots must vote ‘yes.’ Then, the council must approve the application by a four-fifths vote for the zoning changes to take place. The charter amendment mandate was put forth by a residents’ activist group, the Save our Palmetto Bay committee, which gathered more than 2,000 signatures and placed the question on the 2009 mail-in ballot.
In a letter to the village attorney, a lawyer for Alexander Montessori School agreed to go ahead with the referendum, but wrote that the village charter provision requiring the special election is unconstitutional.
Attorney Jerry Proctor cites a 2012 Florida attorney general’s opinion saying that local governments may not require residents’ consent for a rezoning application submitted by a property owner. The opinion was a response to officials from Clay County who had asked whether their government could pass an ordinance allowing landowners to vote on rezoning issues concerning another property owner.
Attorney General Pam Bondi wrote that passing a law that “includes a consent requirement as a condition precedent to the application process for rezoning could be seen to interject an element of arbitrariness into that application process.”
She added that “the opinions of residents are not factual evidence and have been determined by the courts to not constitute a sound basis for denial of a zoning change application.”
But Palmetto Bay Village Attorney Eve Boutsis said the attorney general’s opinion and the issue in Palmetto Bay are two different things.
“In Clay County it was the commission giving the power to someone else and in our case it was the power reserved by the people, giving authority to the people,” Boutsis told The Miami Herald. “The attorney general never addressed the referendum issue, which is a different area of law. The power of referendum is protected by the Florida Constitution.”
Mayor Shelley Stanczyk said the charter provision was enacted to foster good relationships between local private schools and their neighbors.
“When there’s a requirement in place where people need to seek approval to expand, it gives both sides an opportunity to talk, and I think they will set a great example of how to build those bridges,” she said, adding that this is the first time this charter provision has been used.
Alexander Montessori School was founded in 1963 and has four Miami-Dade County campuses. Officials want to increase the student enrollment at its six-acre Ludlam Road Elementary Campus, 14850 SW 67th Ave. in Palmetto Bay.
In addition to the zoning application to increase student enrollment, school officials are asking for a new master site plan that would permit them to replace the campus’ north and south buildings. The construction is not part of the upcoming referendum question.
Only residents living within 2,000 feet from the school campus are eligible to vote in the upcoming referendum. That adds up to 359 voters, according to Village Clerk Meighan Alexander.
The ballots must be mailed back before 7 p.m. June 25 to Miami-Dade County Elections Department, 2700 NW 87th Ave.