By Gerhard Schneibel
The Epstein School and its neighbors may have reached an impasse in their negotiations over the school’s plan 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.
Unless a compromise on a bus plan is reached by Dec. 2, the school will go before the city Planning Commission on Dec. 18 and the City Council on Jan. 20 without neighborhood support, said Nancy Leathers, the city’s director of community development.
“The neighbors are awaiting a response from the school on an alternate proposal,” she said. “Should they agree, then we will continue the mediation.”
The school presented three plans to neighbors at meetings Nov. 14 and 20 at City Hall, and school President Robert Franco said all parties agreed that one was best and will be the option presented to the City Council. But neighbors said none of the plans was acceptable. School leaders also presented a bus plan that did not satisfy neighbors.
The school’s original proposal included the use of one bus, finance permitting, until 2014, Leathers and neighbors said. Neighbors declined to discuss their counterproposal, but it came with the Dec. 2 deadline.
Cliff Steele, who lives next to the school, said the school’s proposal was not “an adequate response to the needs of the neighborhood.”
“We went in again and again agreeing to negotiate on every single point, and we were disappointed,” he said.
The Epstein School wants to increase the campus from 11.16 acres to 15.44 acres with the purchase of eight homes, all of which would be demolished. The school would build a loop road for the carpool line, a 450-seat theater, a two-story early childhood building and a 20-to-40-seat outdoor classroom.
School representatives said they reached an agreement on a site plan that would save trees, eliminate a retaining wall neighbors disliked on the northern part of the site and adjust the position of the planned early childhood building to preserve the view from houses on Bridgewood Valley Road. But traffic remains a stumbling block.
In September, Planning Commission member Wayne Thatcher said the school should start a busing program immediately as a good-faith measure on traffic.
Police Chief Terry Sult said police conducted an evaluation of the traffic from a “short-term mediation point” with the intention of “making sure we opened up the roadway as best as possible for emergency vehicles.”
Neighbors have asked the school to open its gates to allow the carpool line to form on campus, but the school says that keeping the gates open is unsafe and wouldn’t do much to alleviate the traffic on Colewood Way.
Franco said: “Our site is small and does not allow stacking of cars for an extended period. There are safety issues if cars were to stack on our site for an hour or more.”
The school maintains that an advantage of its expansion proposal is the addition of the loop road to handle the carpool line.
Dick Raisler, the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta’s director of communitywide security, acknowledged that other Jewish day schools open their gates for the carpool line, but “each individual situation is different.”
“We of course recommend that the schools use their perimeter security fencing, and we would recommend that they keep those gates closed,” he said. “I encourage them to have a protocol and follow that.”
Neighbors also asked Epstein to move its early childhood program. Epstein has a preschool at Ahavath Achim Synagogue in Buckhead.
Franco said: “Moving our preschool has never been part of our plan for a variety of reasons. The preschool is part of the community our school is built upon. Our education program can’t be dismantled.”