Somerset Academy wins planning board’s OK for 350 students

The Coral Gables Planning and Zoning Board voted on Wednesday, Nov. 30, to recommend Somerset Academy of Coral Gables’ expansion to 350 students but declined to recommend a change in land use.

At the hearing, the board recommended Somerset Academy’s request for the certificate of use and enrollment expansion, adding conditions to address neighbors’ concerns. Among them, the school will expand the first year to 260 and then two years later expand to 350 only if it proves that all city requirements are met.

Somerset was given permission to open in August 2010 at University Baptist Church, 624 Anastasia Ave., under the existing religious zoning for the church’s former preschool with a maximum of 110 students and originally applied in July 2010 to expand.

“The first approval is for 260. Once they meet the requirements, if they comply, we will increase to 350 … We have to be willing to accept some change within limits,” said board member Robert Behar.

The board drew from the city staff’s recent report recommending that the school be granted the needed certificate of use and allowed to expand to 350 in pk-8 if it follows “numerous stringent conditions of approval,” including the submittal of a detailed annual report related to compliance required for annual certificate renewal, said Planning Department Director Eric Riel.

The city staff also recommended the change in land use to community services and facilities to make it and zoning be consistent. But City Attorney Craig Leen said that the school could expand without the change, relying on Florida law that charter schools can operate under preexisting zoning and land use.

Somerset attorney Laura Russo said that the school accepts the 350 enrollment cap and additional conditions. In its amended application submitted Aug. 5 it had requested 436 students, which would contain traffic on site. The city then recommended the 20 percent safety buffer reduction.

Ms. Russo also affirmed its covenant restrictions that the school would be unable to expand regardless of any state legislation enabling it and that the land use would revert back to religious if Somerset were to leave.

But Tucker Gibbs, attorney for the Biltmore Neighborhood Association, said the city would be unable to enforce such covenant restrictions in light of legislation (SB 1546) effective in July that limits a municipality’s ability to propose site development restrictions beyond those for educational facilities under Florida building code. It also requires the city to treat charter schools equitably in comparison to similar requirements and restrictions for public schools.

“Given the state statute’s language on equitable treatment of charter schools with public schools, given that the city does not regulate public schools, my clients have a very valid and real concern that any conditions imposed by the city on the school will have no effect,” said Mr. Gibbs. “If you grant land use change to allow a school here, you must treat the charter school the same as a public school.”

But Mr. Leen said the city could still impose reasonable restrictions and noted that “equitably” doesn’t mean “identically.” And its reference to following Florida educational building code regulations applies more to factors like on-site parking than traffic regulation.

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