The Palmetto Bay Village Council has agreed to reconsider a proposal for a charter school at Franjo Road and Southwest 180th Street.
Council members voted 3-2 at a special meeting Monday night to approve an agreement settling a lawsuit brought by the company that owns the five-acre tract.
The settlement doesn’t guarantee that the council will approve the school. But in a memo to council members, the village attorney said state law will give them little discretion to reject the project. The council could place limitations on the school for the good of the community, but the settlement specifies that the school would be allowed to have up to 1,400 children in kindergarten through 12th grade.
The owner, Shores at Palmetto Bay, wants to build the charter school as part of the Somerset Preparatory Academy chain on the northeast corner of Franjo and 180th Street.
In late 2011, the Village Council denied the application on the basis that it was incomplete and lacked a charter provided by the Miami-Dade School Board. The charter is a document that answers questions such as who is responsible for the school and students, who will be the principal, what is their contact information, and what will be the curriculum, said Village Attorney Eve Boutsis.
Shores at Palmetto Bay appealed the denial to Miami-Dade Circuit Court, arguing that under state law, local governments cannot treat charter schools differently from a traditional public school, Juan-Carlos Planas, attorney for Shores at Palmetto Bay, told The Miami Herald after the meeting.
“Denial of the application, as well as the public hearing process in it of itself, is not allowed by law, when the area is already zoned for a school,” he said, adding that the area at issue is already zoned for a public school. “A public school would not have required a public hearing, so they were essentially treating charter schools differently than traditional public schools by requiring a public hearing, and that’s against Florida law.”
Boutsis said this argument cuts Palmetto Bay out of the process and leaves the charter-school application unregulated.
“Since charter schools do not have to go through the traditional public school evaluation at the school board there would be a vacuum of review as to the basic criteria,” she said.
But before the three-judge panel gave its ruling, attorneys asked for a temporary stay, or a halt, of the proceedings so the two sides can negotiate a settlement.
According to the settlement, council members will again hear Shores at Palmetto Bay’s application for the charter school and if they approve the application, then Shores at Palmetto Bay will drop its appeal. Part of the settlement says that the company can submit a modified site-plan application, which Shores at Palmetto Bay has already done, Boutsis said. The applicant has increased the number of residential units in the modified application, she added. In addition, approval of the application gives Shores at Palmetto Bay the option to show a usable charter only once it seeks a building permit and not when it goes in front of the council for the zoning hearing.
Mayor Shelley Stanczyk and Councilwoman Joan Lindsay voted against the settlement.
“I believe that the village would have prevailed” in court, said Stanczyk. “I believe that the original ruling that the council made was correct. ... We had no choice with an incomplete application to go forward, and he had other questions to answer, not huge questions, but questions nonetheless. With either vote they would get their development. There wasn’t any reason to settle.”
If the council rejects the site plan, then the matter will return to the courts where the judges will issue their ruling.
Boutsis outlines two possible outcomes if the matter goes back to the courts:
If the judges rule in favor of Shores at Palmetto Bay, the charter-school application would need to obtain administrative approval and will not be brought up for a council hearing. But if the court rules in favor of Palmetto Bay, the application would go back to the council for a hearing.
A handful of Palmetto Bay residents spoke at Monday night’s meeting, urging the council to vote against the settlement.
“The settlement gives little to nothing to Palmetto Bay and favors the developer. … The settlement turns the clock back to what the developer wanted a year and a half ago. It sends a bad signal to future developers that even if they do not follow the legal procedures, they can sue, and Palmetto Bay will give them what they want, ” resident Marsha Matson told the council before the vote. Matson later told The Miami Herald she is concerned about traffic tie-ups that will slow down emergency response time from nearby police and fire stations.
In addition to the charter school, Shores at Palmetto Bay has also proposed to build a mixed-use residential and commercial complex on the property, including residences, offices and retail businesses. Palmetto Bay staffers will review this part of the project.
A hearing for the charter school’s site plan has not yet been scheduled.
This isn’t Palmetto Bay’s first legal dispute over school expansion. The village was on the losing end of a long court battle after it rejected an expansion of Palmer Trinity school.