By Gerhard Schneibel
gerhard@reporternewspapers.net

A month before the Epstein School’s expansion proposal goes back before the Sandy Springs Planning Commission, the public animosity has died down, but the school’s neighbors say no progress has been made toward a resolution.

Ann Feldman, the president of the Montaire Springs Neighborhood Association, said the private school hasn’t met any of the neighbors’ demands to reduce the impact of its proposed project.

“I’m offended, personally,” she said. “To me, there’s a total lack of respect for the neighborhood’s concerns, as well as a total lack of respect for the city and what they’ve asked for.”

The City Council in September granted the school’s request for a 120-day deferral of its application for a use permit to expand its facilities and student body. The school asked for the deferral at the suggestion of the Planning Commission and the city planning staff in the hope that the school and neighbors could work out their differences.

The school hopes to increase its enrollment from 650 to 850 students over 10 years after expanding its facilities from 106,000 square feet to 158,000 square feet. It agreed years ago to restrict its enrollment to 650 when it received its current use permit.

The Epstein School’s plan would increase the campus from 11.16 acres to 15.44 acres with the purchase of eight homes on Colewood Way and Bridgewood Valley Road, all of which would be demolished. With the extra space, the school would build a three-lane loop road to handle the carpool line, a 450-seat theater, a two-story early childhood building and a 20-to-40-seat outdoor classroom.

Among other complaints, neighbors object to what they fear will be an increase in traffic twice a day when parents drop off and pick up students. Neighbors want the school to present a busing plan to alleviate the traffic, and they want the school to move its preschool facility to another location so all students attending the Colewood Way campus would be old enough to ride buses. Epstein has another preschool site at Ahavath Achim Synagogue in Buckhead.

After the deferral in September, neighbors opposed to the Epstein project quit campaigning against it in the hope of resolving the conflict, Feldman said. “I went into these meetings with an open heart, I really did. We have not done a thing for months in hopes that we could get together and come up with something to make everybody happy.”

Planning Commission member Wayne Thatcher said in September the school should start a busing program immediately as a good-faith measure.

But Epstein’s head of school, Stan Beiner, said that isn’t economically feasible. “We need to really tie the issue of busing to progress on the plan,” he said. “I think it’s an expenditure we would be willing to make if it’s part of an overall plan.”

Neighbor Cliff Steele, whose property abuts the school, said, “This entire thing really revolves around traffic.”

While building a loop road within the expanded campus would reduce traffic on Colewood Way, it isn’t an acceptable solution because of air pollution and noise pollution, Steele said.

“This literally would take a roadway right around the perimeter around their lot, which is literally right in the back lots of several dozen neighbors,” he said.

Steele said neighbors are “at a point of frustration” because after “stalling us for month after month,” the school “came back with basically the same thing.”

“We have right now a choice of three unacceptable site plans,” he said. “What we had hoped is that we could come together and develop a site plan.”

Steele is Jewish, as are many neighbors of the school, which is affiliated with the Conservative Jewish movement. Vandals spray-painted two swastikas near the school in August. The Montaire Springs Neighborhood Association and the Sandy Springs Police Department offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the vandals, but police recently said they have no developments in the case.

Steele said the school is “like a piece of wood; they’re totally rigid. … This is not a religious thing; this is a neighborhood thing.”

Neighbors also said the school hasn’t been forthcoming about releasing a list of its students, leading them to suspect more than 650 students are enrolled at the Colewood Way campus, a violation of the school’s use permit.

Beiner said the campus has only 650 students, but the student list remains private for security reasons.

“Though this is a public process, people’s privacy needs to be protected,” he said. “Will we share those lists with the neighbors? No. We respect the privacy of our families and the security of our children.”

Moving the preschool from the Colewood Way campus isn’t an option, Beiner said.

“People need to understand the way our school functions so they can understand what some of the challenges are,” he said. “It has to do with economy of scale and the amount of resources that do go into a program like ours that would be hard to duplicate on two different sites.”

The school is reluctant to commit unconditionally to a busing program in part because of the economic downturn, Beiner said.

“We don’t know what the reaction will be, but our plan is designed to lower the number of cars coming to the school,” he said. “It is somewhat tied to what happens in the upcoming deliberations. Particularly in this economic environment right now, we’re seeing an increase of needs among our families and concerns of what’s going to be coming in the next months.”

The school and neighbors continue to talk, including a meeting set Nov. 14. The Epstein School’s permit application will go back before the Planning Commission on Dec. 18, and the council Jan. 20.