A Montessori school in Palmetto Bay plans to build a bigger campus.
The Palmetto Bay Village Council unanimously agreed to allow Alexander Montessori School to demolish two of its buildings and construct two two-story structures in their place at the school’s Ludlam Road Elementary Campus, 14850 SW 67th Ave.
To create a bigger campus that will give students a better view of the outside green space, Alexander Montessori plans to execute the construction project in two parts: In Phase I, which will take up to four years, the school will remodel its north building to house classrooms, a reception area, a multipurpose room and a media center.
In Phase II, which is scheduled to take up to 10 years, the school will remodel its south building to house classrooms, an administrative office and a faculty workroom. The school plans to build an environmentally friendly building and to stagger its arrival and dismissal times as a way to decrease traffic congestion. Overall, the school will add 18,000 square feet to its facility but will not exceed its current boundaries.
While the school has village approval to expand its buildings, it can’t increase enrollment yet.
A June referendum asked village residents who live within 2,000 feet of the school's campus whether Alexander can increase its student enrollment from 270 to 329.
Even though 67.6 percent of those who cast ballots said ‘yes,’ Alexander Montessori had to obtain 75 percent of the vote to move forward with the student increase.
The referendum requirement stems from a voter-approved charter amendment. In 2009, 68 percent of village residents who voted supported a charter provision that requires a referendum for all private schools in the village that want to increase their student enrollment. The charter change came after a long dispute between Palmetto Bay and Palmer Trinity School over expansion. The two are in the process of settling litigation.
James McGhee II, co-head of the school, told the Miami Herald that Alexander Montessori decided to move forward with building a bigger campus with hopes that the school will be able to obtain approval for increased student enrollment in the future.
“I am open to any solution that would result in us being able to enroll more children,” he said. “Maybe the will of the people will change and perhaps that 75 percent requirement and that ordinance will change.”
McGhee has maintained that the 75 percent threshold is too high.
"When was the last president elected with 75 percent of the vote, or the last governor or when did the last bond issue pass with 75 percent?" he asked Monday night.
The concept of allowing neighbors to decide one person’s property rights by referendum raises thorny legal issues.
University of Florida law professor Michael Allan Wolf said that referenda like the one in Palmetto Bay can be legally “problematic.”
“I can’t say it’s illegal. But the courts have always been skeptical whenever neighbors can exercise veto power over their neighbors. That’s not something they are supposed to do. That’s something the government does,” said Wolf, who teaches land use, property and local government law at UF.
Normally, the council makes such zoning decisions and residents can give their input at a public hearing, he added.
In 2010, a ballot measure asked Floridians if they support a constitutional amendment, known as Amendment 4, that would require voters’ approval for changes of local comprehensive land-use plans. The proposed constitutional amendment failed as 67 percent of those who voted were against it.
The amendment’s failure, said Wolf, is evidence that such referenda are “not popular in Florida.”
Village Mayor Shelley Stanczyk has said that Palmetto Bay's charter provision was created to foster good relationships between local private schools and residents.
When in May the school asked the Village Council to allow the school to move forward with the referendum, Alexander Montessori School’s attorney said that the village’s charter provision requiring the referendum is unconstitutional.
Attorney Jerry Proctor cited 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 “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 former Palmetto Bay village attorney Eve Boutsis told the Herald at the time that 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.”