By Gerhard Schneibel
gerhard@reporternewspapers.net

The heated feelings over The Epstein School’s expansion plans drew about 400 people to a community information meeting July 31 at the Fulton County North Annex.

Sandy Springs held the meeting at the county annex to accommodate the turnout, City Planner Patrice Ruffin said. Still, people were turned away once the auditorium was full.

“There were so many people; there was no way for us to have a real dialogue. … We just had to let everybody vent,” Ruffin said. “People had a chance to get out their frustration.”

That frustration comes in response to a plan to expand from 650 to 850 students within 10 years. The school’s facilities would increase from 106,000 to 158,000 square feet. The expansion would include a 450-seat theater, a two-story building for the early childhood program and a 20-to-40-seat outdoor classroom.

Eight houses would be demolished on Colewood Way and Bridgewood Valley Road. The school owns five and has option agreements on three. A ninth homeowner didn’t want to sell.

“We’re part of a very good school system in Sandy Springs. It’s a blend of private and public schools,” said Stan Beiner, Epstein’s head of school. “Sandy Springs is growing. Our Jewish community is growing. The school is having to turn people away.”

Barbara Malone, a member of the affected Mountaire Springs Neighborhood Association, said she understands the school’s need to expand, but she’s concerned about traffic.

“I can’t walk my dog in the morning. I can’t walk in the afternoon. I have neighbors who will not plan to have visitors between 2 and 4 o’clock in the afternoon,” she said. “Plus, what’s to say they’re not going to come back and say, ‘Oh, you know those 850 students we wanted — 1,200 now’?”

The school plans to add 128 parking spaces to the 140 it has and to construct a loop road for the carpool queue. Beiner said, “This is a way in which we can improve neighborhood life by removing many of the concerns that currently exist while being able to address our school’s challenge of being full.”

The Epstein School was established on the site in 1987 and purchased the campus in 1994, when it obtained a land-use permit that capped its enrollment at 650 children.

Andy Porter, a neighborhood resident and member of the Sandy Springs Design Review Board, said neighbors were promised in 1994 that carpools and buses would mitigate traffic.

“We have a number of people that went through this in the ’90s and sat across the table from the folks and negotiated in good faith with them. A lot of the promises that were made then have not come to fruition,” he said. “They enlisted support based on guidelines that they would never exceed” the cap of 650.

Ann Feldman, the president of the neighborhood association, said the school was unresponsive to past requests to address traffic problems. “We are not opposed to the school whatsoever,” she said. “It’s a fabulous school. We are just opposed to the demolition of homes, the addition of students and the addition of traffic to our neighborhood. It’s really frustrating that the neighborhood is just sort of expected to give everything and the school doesn’t want to give in return.”

Mindy Binderman, with three children at Epstein, said she moved to Sandy Springs in part because of its educational opportunities.

She said the school can’t be expected to maintain a 650-student cap forever. “Nothing, particularly in Atlanta, has remained the same since 1994.”

The expansion with the loop road is the best chance at correcting the traffic overflow from the school, Binderman said. “If we continue with the status quo, unfortunately the traffic problems are going to continue because we just don’t have a way to fix that.”

The Epstein School’s proposal for a new use permit will be heard by the Sandy Springs Planning Commission on Aug. 21 and the City Council on Sept. 16.