The Brookhaven Planning Commission is expected to discuss minimum lot sizes for private and charter schools in the city at its Sept. 6 meeting.
Community Development Director Patrice Ruffin is recommending the ordinance be amended to require a minimum lot size of 5 acres for private and charter elementary, middle and high schools.
The city’s current ordinance only addresses private schools and requires private elementary schools be on 5 acres or more; middle schools be on 12 acres plus one additional acre for each 100 students; and that high schools be on 20 acres plus one additional acre for each 100 students.
“The existing ordinance requires varying acreages by grade level at sizes that are more suited to a suburban school developed on a major county roadway; however, the private schools located within the city of Brookhaven are not currently developed in that manner, being in an urban environment,” Ruffin states in an Aug. 2 memo to the Planning Commission.
Commissioners discussed the ordinance amendment at their Aug. 2 meeting, but postponed consideration after questions were raised when Ruffin said charter schools would be included in the amended ordinance.
Dale Boone, who is running against incumbent City Councilmember Joe Gebbia in District 4, argued at the Aug. 2 meeting that requiring a minimum of 5 acres for schools would prohibit state charter school Brookhaven Innovation Academy from being able to move back into the city. The school, founded by the Brookhaven City Council, now operates as a separate entity and is leasing school space in Norcross.
“Adding 5 acres hinders Brookhaven Innovation Academy from coming back,” Boone told commissioners. “There’s not 5 acres in the city for developments. There is nowhere for [BIA] to go except a place under 5 acres.”
Boone also said charter schools do not have acreage requirements.
That’s not true, however, said Josh Gregory, vice president and principal at Colliers International, and who is an expert on the public/charter school industry and charter schools’ requirements for buildings and land.
He said because charter schools are public schools they must follow guidelines established by the state Department of Education when it comes to buildings and property.
The state DOE requirements as outlined on its website for public and charter schools are the same as the current Brookhaven ordinance: at least 5 acres for elementary schools, at least 12 acres for middle schools, and at least 20 acres for high schools.
Private schools do not have to meet any property requirements set by the state, Gregory said, but must meet zoning codes in the municipalities they are located.
Charter and public schools can apply for waivers to the state DOE, however, if they cannot find land meeting the minimum acreage, Gregory said.
“When you get a waiver, there is no minimum or maximum,” he said.
Ruffin said at the Aug. 2 meeting she was requesting the ordinance be amended because an existing private school in Brookhaven was seeking to renovate and expand its facilities. She declined to identify the school.
The way the current ordinance is written prohibits the private school from applying for a building permit from the city because it does not meet the school plot size requirements, Ruffin said. Lowering the minimum acreage to five acres allows that school to do the necessary renovations and expansions without having to apply for a lengthy special land use permit, she said.
Ruffin did not say anything about BIA, but said she wanted to add charter schools to the ordinance amendment.
Gregory said while it seemed like the city was attempting to make it easier for schools to build and renovate in the city, he thought it should be left up to the state DOE to determine property requirements for charter and public schools.
Jennifer Langley, board chair of BIA, said she was not aware of the city’s proposed ordinance amendment concerning school property, but that it could interfere with BIA’s future plans.
“The Georgia Department of Education has always expressed a willingness to work with BIA on waivers for a site less than 5 acres,” Langley said. “We have a waiver for our current location. The Department of Education understands the cost of in-town land to be cost prohibitive, and good site planning, with a two-story structure, can easily allow a smaller site to satisfy the other requirements for a quality campus.
She added, “I think any local municipality trying to set minimum standards for zoning for public schools would simply be interfering with the Department of Education’s goal to allow for quality choices in education in areas where it is needed most.”