Fight over new charter school on Sunset Drive will continue into May

Fight brewing over new charter school

Residents in the Sunset Drive area are fighting plans to build a new Somerset charter school that they say would gridlock traffic and threaten a fragile forest.
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Residents in the Sunset Drive area are fighting plans to build a new Somerset charter school that they say would gridlock traffic and threaten a fragile forest.

Sunset Drive residents will have to wait a little longer to find out whether a new mega charter school is going up across the street.

On Thursday the Miami-Dade County Commission spent three hours listening to impassioned debate over a proposed Somerset charter school, which would house at least 1,400 students just east of the Palmetto Expressway, before postponing the vote until May 18. The auditorium was a sea of blue Somerset tees and bright yellow “VOTE NO” shirts as more than 200 people waited to speak.

Neighbors of the proposed site near the intersection of Sunset, also known as Southwest 72nd Street, and Southwest 72nd Ave told commissioners they were concerned the school would bring hundreds of additional cars to the area, further gridlocking already bumper-to-bumper traffic. This could pose a safety hazard for emergency vehicles trying to get to two nearby hospitals, residents said. With numerous public, private and religious education options nearby, some of which have room for more students, detractors said another school is unnecessary.

Luci Hernandez, 57, recounted her experience getting stuck in an ambulance during morning rush hour on Sunset Drive several years ago after suffering a heart attack. She recalled the EMTs blaring the ambulance horn as they tried in vain to get around stopped cars before driving over the median and speeding into oncoming traffic.

“I could see on their face the panic of losing precious time getting to the hospital,” Hernandez told the commissioners.

View of the Trinity Pineland located behind an empty lot that is the center of a fight by a group of neighbors opposed to the creation of a new charter school on SW 72nd Street and Sunset Drive. PEDRO PORTAL

Opponents of the school also stressed environmental concerns. Two acres of a rare patch of pine rockland, a delicate forest habitat, sit on the proposed site and another 10 acres of forest butt up against the property. The proposed school would “impact the rockland’s sensitive habitat and imperil the native species of flora and fauna that depend on it,” said Amy Creekmur, a representative of the Tropical Audubon Society. Endangered species including tiger beetles and rare butterfly species reside in the forest, Creekmur said, along with federally protected bonneted bats and gray foxes.

Meanwhile, parents whose children attend a nearby Somerset K-8 school known as SoMi talked about the quality of the education provided by the charter network and the need for a Somerset high school in the area. The proposed school would serve children from kindergarten through twelfth grade.

“All of my kids have had a great experience at Somerset Academy and as a family we’ve decided that we would like for our children to continue in a Somerset school for their high school education,” said Gonzalo Garcia, the father of four SoMi students.

Representatives from Somerset said the charter network has made every effort to reduce traffic impacts including designing a traffic plan that would keep as many cars as possible on school property during drop-off and pick-up times.

Somerset initially applied for a zoning exception that would allow for 2,500 students at the site, but based on recommendations by county zoning staff they have lowered the number to 1,400 as a starting point. The area is zoned for single-family homes, but the lot owner, the University Baptist Church of Coral Gables, now known as Christ Journey Church, got permission in the 1990s to build a church and a day nursery on the site limited to 98 children.

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Madeleine Munilla, Mary Faraldo and Lily Lopez are part of a group of neighbors from the Sunset Drive area that are fighting the creation of a new charter school. PEDRO PORTAL

With a vote on the zoning exception postponed until May, County Commissioner Xavier Suarez suggested both sides work out a solution. Somerset has gone toe-to-toe over school construction with residents in other Miami-Dade neighborhoods and compromised by lowering the number of students. Homeowners in East Kendall fought the expansion of a Somerset Academy at 9500 SW 97th Ave. for four years, spending $40,000 before finally striking a deal to cap enrollment at 675 students. In Coral Gables, neighbors went toe-to-toe with Somerset over plans to increase the number of students at another school to 700, getting the charter network to agree to a maximum of 260 pupils.

Somerset may not have to battle neighbors in the future, however, if a bill recently passed by the Florida House of Representatives also clears the Senate. The bill (HB 7101/SB 1362) would make it possible for universities, churches and several other types of institutions to provide space for charter schools without getting a zoning exception.

“The school boards, when they’re going to build a new school, they really don’t have to go through all this zoning. They do it themselves,” said Rep. Bob Cortes, R-Altamonte Springs, who sponsored the House bill. “Charter schools are public schools but many people are trying to treat them differently in zoning.”

This means that while charter networks like Somerset will be able to avoid the hassle and expense of getting zoning exceptions, residents who don’t want more schools in their neighborhood might have a harder time fighting new ones.

Staff writer Kristen Clark contributed to this report