Miami-Dade rejects plans for new charter school near the Palmetto and Sunset

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.
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.

Sunset Drive residents worried about traffic congestion can breathe a little easier.

On Thursday, the Miami-Dade County Commission rejected Somerset Academy’s plans to build a new charter school on Sunset Drive near the Palmetto Expressway, ending a bitter two-year fight that has pitted neighbors against each other.

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.

The commission voted unanimously, with nine commissioners present, to deny Somerset’s application for a zoning exception to build a school serving 1,400 students in grades kindergarten through twelfth grade on a 19-acre vacant lot owned by University Baptist Church of Coral Gables, now known as Christ Journey Church.

“I think this is still out of scale for the neighborhood,” said County Commissioner Xavier Suarez, whose district includes the proposed site for the charter school. “I think it would create enormous traffic problems.”

That was the principal argument of neighbors who organized against the proposed school, making T-shirts and holding protests near the school site. They argued that the school would bring hundreds of additional cars to the area, further gridlocking traffic, and said they worried Somerset would attempt to expand the school well beyond 1,400 students.

But others who live or work in the area argued that a new Somerset high school would provide a high-quality secondary education option for students studying at the nearby Somerset Academy at SoMi in South Miami, which only runs through the eighth grade.

“I’m extremely disappointed,” said Brooke Arrindell, the mother of two SoMi students. “Now I’m left trying to figure out where I’m going to put [my son] for high school...he’ll be separated from his friends.”

Supporters also cited the traffic plan for the proposed school, which they argued provided ample room for parents to pick-up and drop-off students on the school site without obstructing traffic.

The fight even attracted the attention of the rapper Pitbull, who tweeted his support the day before the zoning hearing, urging commissioners to vote in favor of the school with his signature encouragement: “Dale!” Armando Christian Pérez, also known as Pitbull, backs his own charter school, the SLAM charter school in Little Havana, which, like Somerset, is affiliated with charter giant Academica.

But there were also some heavy hitters fighting against the charter school, including the city of South Miami and Pedro Munilla of Munilla Construction Management.

Although the proposed school site sits on land in unincorporated Miami-Dade County, the South Miami city commission had voiced concerns that traffic congestion would keep police and ambulances from passing through the area, which is near two hospitals. The city commission passed a resolution last May urging county commissioners to block plans to build the school.

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

Detractors also raised 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 county commission’s decision to block the charter school is unusual. Although residents have butted heads with charter school operators in other Miami-Dade neighborhoods, they usually end up reaching an agreement limiting the number of students at the school.

In East Kendall, for example, homeowners 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.

At the last zoning hearing on April 20, county commissioners spent three hours listening to impassioned debate about the proposed school before Suarez suggested that both sides try to work out a compromise before the May 18 hearing.

That wasn’t possible, lawyers for both parties said at the beginning of Thursday’s hearing, citing disagreements over a cap on the number of students.

Fights over new charter schools may be a thing of the past, however, if Gov. Rick Scott signs a massive education bill recently passed by the Florida Legislature. The bill (HB 7069) would make it possible for universities, churches and several other types of institutions to provide space for charter schools without getting a zoning exception. This means that while charter networks will be able to avoid the hassle of getting zoning exceptions, residents who don’t want new schools in the neighborhood will likely have a harder time fighting them.

Kyra Gurney: 305-376-3205, @KyraGurney