Kendall residents make peace with expansion of neighborhood charter school

The gates to the old Pinewood Acres School on 9500 SW 97th Ave. It’s now Somerset Academy at Pinewood Acres.
The gates to the old Pinewood Acres School on 9500 SW 97th Ave. It’s now Somerset Academy at Pinewood Acres. FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

Kendall residents ended a four-year, $40,000 battle against the expansion of a local charter school Thursday after reaching an agreement on the school’s size.

Somerset Academy Bay at Pinewood Acres initially had ambitious plans to turn the former site of a small family-run private school at 9500 SW 97th Ave. into a K-12 campus for 2,000 students over the objections of residents who argued that such a school would be too big for the neighborhood. Somerset whittled its plans down to 1,260 K-8 students and then 840 students as neighbors continued to protest that a larger school would gridlock already congested streets.

The East Kendall Homeowners Federation finally struck a deal with Somerset the night before a Thursday county zoning hearing, agreeing not to fight the county’s recommendation that Somerset be allowed to increase enrollment from its current size of 290 students to 675. In exchange, the federation got a traffic control barrier to keep parents off a residential street that cuts through school grounds, and a promise that Somerset would not apply to increase enrollment again for seven years. The Board of County Commissioners approved the Miami-Dade zoning evaluation section’s recommendation Thursday morning.

“Somerset Bay and our whole team are very happy with this decision and happy that the hard work of our team and supporters, alongside our neighbors, resulted in this approval,” Somerset Principal Saili Hernandez said in an e-mail. The East Kendall school is part of a network of 60 Somerset Academy schools in Florida, Washington, D.C., Texas and Nevada.

Residents are still concerned about the school’s potential impact on traffic, however, said federation president Jose Suarez. “If anybody travels 97th Avenue in the AM and the afternoon, they can see what we’re talking about,” he said. “In the mornings I basically have to throw myself out into the street to be able to make a turn to go to work because traffic is so bad.”

In an effort to minimize traffic congestion, Hernandez said Somerset will use multiple arrival and dismissal times.

Now that they’ve been given the green light, Hernandez said Somerset is going to develop a timeline for the school’s expansion. Somerset has a waiting list of over 1,000 students, the majority of whom live near the school’s site, Hernandez said.

The battle may not be over for good, however. Under the terms of the agreement between the federation and the school, Somerset can reapply to increase enrollment by an additional 165 students after 7 years.

If that happens, Suarez said the homeowners federation — which was created to fight Somerset’s expansion and has spent close to $40,000 — can’t promise it won’t object.