By Amy Wenk
The saga continues for Tabula Rasa — The Language Academy, housed at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in western Sandy Springs.
The city’s Planning Commission voted May 21 to defer a decision on the two use permits sought by the church and the school. The commission first heard the application March 19. The City Council took up the issue April 21 and deferred a decision until June 16.
Now a 30-day deferral will further postpone judgment.
The church on Riverside Drive is requesting a use permit for a 2,000-square-foot addition to the 23,046-square-foot building to provide room to grow for its tenant, Tabula Rasa, which immerses children ages 1 through kindergarten in Spanish or French and has an after-school program and a weekend enrichment program with older elementary children.
The school also is requesting a use permit to increase enrollment by 140 to 200.
Behind the proposal is the private school’s plan to expand into a full elementary school, launched this year with a state-certified kindergarten program. The school’s founder and owner, Besa Tarazhi, resigned as principal in April amid controversy over preschoolers staying longer than allowed, but she retains control and still intends to grow.
A deferral is necessary, city staff said, because Tabula Rasa’s proposed operations constitute both a private school and a day care facility under the city’s zoning ordinance. The application was not advertised that way.
Nancy Leathers, the city’s director of community development, said three permits now will be advertised: the expansion of the church, the increase in enrollment and the operation of the day care facility.
“You need to be able to see that all together as a package in order to be able to address the total application,” Leathers said. “That gives us the time to actually prepare the kind of analysis you are going to need on a complicated case like this.”
Tabula Rasa has operated at the church under a use permit allowing 60 students since July 2007. The school has enrolled 157 this spring but argues that it is in compliance because no more than 60 are at the school at any time.
“That was the interpretation that the staff had given the applicant more than a year ago before this application was pending,” said Ellen Smith of Holt Ney Zatcoff & Wasserman, the applicant’s attorney.
But that interpretation, traffic concerns and distrust of Tarazhi have led to significant opposition. Residents from Riverside Drive, Foxridge and Fair Oaks Manor formed a group called Citizens Against Commercial Growth on Riverside Drive (www.protectriverside.com).
“The key issue that we are hearing from the community is that the applicant has not been straightforward,” commission member David Rubenstein said. “Whatever rules are determined, whatever compromise is reached between staff and the school, we need to be able to give the community confidence that the applicant is going to abide by the rules.”