By Gerhard Schneibel

The Epstein School is putting a hold on its expansion plans, announcing that it will ask the City Council on Jan. 20 to grant a withdrawal of its application for a special-use permit rather than vote on the proposal.

“In light of the dramatically different economic climate from just six months ago … the Board of Trustees has determined that it is best to postpone such a significant capital project,” the school said in a press release Dec. 4.

Neighbors said they will continue to campaign against the expansion.

“Our biggest goal is that they don’t approve the plan,” said Ann Feldman, the president of the Mountaire Springs Neighborhood Association. “Assuming that (the council) is going to give them the withdrawal is assuming they made up their mind before they’ve heard anything” at the Jan. 20 meeting.

On Dec. 18 the deferred application will go back before the Planning Commission, which will vote on a recommendation. The council then could grant the withdrawal, deny the application or approve the use permit after all.

Neighbors may press the city to grant the withdrawal conditional upon improvements to traffic backups on Colewood Way.

Cliff Steele, whose property abuts the school, said: “We’re all tired of this. It’s been going on for a long time.”

Epstein School President Robert Franco wrote in an e-mail that the school has no “plans in the foreseeable future to reapply” for a permit to expand its operations.

“We are focused on providing the best education for our current students. We look forward during this time to working on some of the issues that divided us from those opposed to our plans,” Franco wrote. “Our hope is that we will be able to have regular conversations, in cooperation with the city, with all our neighbors about mutual concerns.”

The half-year application process has included public meetings attended by as many as 400 people, concerns that the school is out of compliance with stormwater management regulations, accusations that it is secretly over capacity and thus violating its current use permit, and two incidents of swastikas being spray-painted near the Jewish school.

The school intended to increase its enrollment from 650 to 850 over 10 years after expanding its facilities from 106,000 square feet to 158,000 square feet. The project would have increased the campus from 11.16 acres to 15.44 acres. The school would have built a loop road, a 450-seat theater, a two-story early childhood building and an outdoor classroom.

The Epstein School agreed years ago to restrict its enrollment to 650 when it received its current use permit from Fulton County. Some neighbors accused the school of exceeding that limit, but the school denied that charge.

The most recent negotiations between the school and neighbors focused on a possible busing plan to relieve carpool congestion in the neighborhood, but the two sides remained at odds.

Steele said neighbors still hope the school will fix the traffic backups on Colewood Way.

“They should be moving independently. If they are good neighbors, they should fix the traffic now,” he said. “I would hope that since a dialogue was opened during the course of our discussions with the school that we might be able to build on that and continue to talk to them with the hope that perhaps we can reach some solutions that are not painful for them, but which would be positive for the traffic.”

As part of its expansion plan, the Epstein School purchased five homes along Colewood Way and Bridgewood Valley Road and had option agreements with the owners of three others. A ninth homeowner didn’t want to sell.

Franco didn’t say what the school plans to do with the homes it owns or whether it will move ahead with the other purchases.

“The school remains financially sound, and fiscal prudence will always be a guiding principle in whatever we do,” he wrote.