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School projects blocked by code

Island School on Day Road wants to build a multi-purpose room, a place where the whole school community can come together for meetings and performances, or where the kids can play indoors on rainy days.

But under the city code, that can’t be done.

The Bainbridge Racquet Club wants to expand, adding an exercise facility and other amenities.

But under current city code, it can’t do so unless it takes out one of its five tennis courts and one of its two racquetball courts.

Sometime before the end of the decade, Wilkes Elementary School may need to be extensively remodeled.

But that can’t be done either under current city code, meaning the school district might instead have to build on the heavily forested property on Mandus Olson Road that some people think is part of the Grand Forest.

The obstacle, in each case, is a provision of the zoning code that permits educational, cultural and religious facilities to occupy only half as much of their property as would be allowed in residential developments on the same piece of ground.

“That immediately made all of our schools non-conforming, except for Woodward and Sakai,” said Bruce Weiland, a school board member. “That means that if we contemplated a really extensive remodel, or if one of our buildings was substantially damaged, we couldn’t rebuild on the existing footprint.”

The provision was added to the city’s land-use code in early 1999, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Asked to research the question, the city planning staff has been unable to find any meeting minutes that make more than a passing reference to the lot coverage limitation.

And while present council member Debbie Vancil said the matter was extensively discussed in 1998 by the Planning Commission, of which she was then a member, school officials say they received no notice of the change.

“This appeared without our involvement or knowledge,” said school district Superintendent Ken Crawford. “We would have had real concerns.”

The ordinance pops up in ways that some may find surprising.

The school district campus stretching from High School to New Brooklyn roads on the west side of Madison Avenue is actually zoned for 2.9 homes per acre, a zone in which buildings may cover 25 percent of the land.

But for schools, permitted lot coverage is now only half that amount, or 12.5 percent. And the school district has already exceeded that coverage by some 54,000 square feet.

Nor is it clear that the limitation has been consistently enforced.

“How the hell did they build the pool?” Weiland said. “If they had enforced the coverage limitation at the time, a $5 million project couldn’t have been built, or it would have cost a great deal more because someone would have had to buy the land.”

City administrator Lynn Nordby agrees that the pool was likely permitted through an oversight by the planning staff.

“I have to think that nobody calculated the lot coverage,” he said.

Crawford said he is unsure how the limitation will impact the district’s plans to enclose what is now an outdoor area at the Commodore building, a portion of which is being demolished this summer.

But he is more concerned about the long-range implications.

“If at some time in the future we want to replace the Commodore gym or cafeteria, we couldn’t do it,” he said.

Blakely and Wilkes elementary schools, both of which need refurbishing, are also a concern.

“The lot coverage precludes adding to the building at Wilkes,” Weiland said. “We might instead have to look at the future school site on Mandus Olson, and I don’t think that would really be the community’s preference.”

Acting on a request from Island School, among others, the Planning Commission recently recommended that the lot-coverage requirement be dropped, and an ordinance was prepared to simply delete the limitation.

But the council’s Land Use Committee overrode the recommendation of both the commission and the city planning staff, and decided to take a harder look at the issue.

“The major concern that seems to come up to me is when you add parking and some of the other things required by these institutions, maybe lot coverage shouldn’t be the same as for residences,” Councilwoman Christine Rolfes said.

Rolfes said she found the school district’s argument compelling, but said there might be a rationale for treating public and private schools differently on the basis that public schools can’t control their own enrollment.

At last week’s committee meeting, Vancil cited private schools as a concern, saying some have tended to expand over time, increasing the impact over what neighbors might expect.

Island School Principal Kelly Webster said her school’s plan would not increase the impact on the neighbors – including Vancil and her husband, who own land immediately to the west of the school and are advertising it for sale.

Short of buying the Vancils’ parcel or some other property, the school’s plans are stymied unless the code is changed back.

“Our student body will stay the same, and there won’t be any increase in traffic or parking,” Webster said. “This is to satisfy our needs for a physical-education space and a performing-arts space.

“Right now, everything has to be outside, which is rough on the teacher, or we have to squeeze into the library.”

Racquet Club owner Ted Eisenhardt, whose facility is affected because the definition of a “cultural” facility includes recreational uses, said the coverage limitation is unnecessary.

Affected facilities are all so-called “conditional uses,” meaning they have to demonstrate that they will be compatible with the surrounding area. That process, he said, can take lot coverage into account when and if it is necessary.

“Only when lot coverage is perceived to be an issue for a particular project would there be a thought to limiting beyond the underlying zoning,” he wrote in a letter to the land-use committee supporting repeal of the limitation.

Because of the lot-coverage limitation, Eisenhardt said the proposed racquet club expansion is actually going to be no more than a reconfiguration – putting different uses into the same footprint. But because his members are not enthusiastic about losing a tennis and racquetball court, he would rather wait to see if the limitation will be removed.

The Planning Commission recommended dropping the lot-coverage limitation because it believed the case-by-case approach of the conditional-use permitting process was sufficient, said architect Sean Parker, who chaired the commission when it recommended repeal of the rule.

Where appropriate, lot coverage can be limited on a case-by-case basis during the process, he said.

But there is no provision for an increase in lot coverage over the 50 percent lid, and that one-way aspect makes the limitation troublesome, he said.

Rolfes said that despite the heavy workload facing her committee, she hopes the coverage limitation can be dealt with promptly.

“There are folks out there that need to have an answer, yes or no,” she said. “We’ve got to keep this moving.”

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