Neighbors concerned by possible Rancho Santa Fe school expansion

A discussion by the Rancho Santa Fe School District board about conducting environmental studies for a proposed expansion of the district’s R. Roger Rowe campus quickly drew the attention of school neighbors, who fear such a project could harm their property values and quality of life.

Listed for discussion on the school board’s agenda for Thursday, Aug. 4, was a proposal to “prepare the environmental impact report (EIR) documentation for the proposed expansion of R. Roger Rowe School not to exceed $160,000.”

The district did not provide any additional details to the public regarding the proposed expansion project on its agenda, leading neighbors to conclude that the district might be moving forward with a master plan unveiled last December.

The master plan contains a staff recommendation to accommodate both current needs and future growth, which entails purchasing and closing a portion of El Fuego, the road now bordering the west side of the seven-acre campus, and rerouting traffic westward, to Mimosa Place. The plan also calls for the district to acquire properties now owned by private parties and the Rancho Santa Fe Association.

That plan concerns Mimosa residents John and Kathy Giovenco. John Giovenco told the board that the plan “will have a serious negative environmental and cultural impact on our neighborhood, our street, our house and our lives.”

Under the proposed master plan, the vacated El Fuego road property would connect the current campus with the proposed expansion area, and be the site of new school buildings as well as a courtyard. Beyond the vacated street, on the properties the district would need to acquire, would be additional playing fields.

Giovenco said the proposed master plan would channel traffic from the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Department, water district, security patrol and school onto Mimosa, feeding onto La Granada, a larger arterial.

“Your plan causes uncontestable damage to your neighbors,” he said.

In spite of the concerns of neighbors such as the Giovencos, the district has not decided to move forward with its master plan, and instead could opt for a more modest project to create additional parking on a parcel it already owns across the street on El Fuego, or do nothing at all at this time.

New district Superintendent David Jaffe, who was attending his first school board meeting on Aug. 4 after starting work on Monday, Aug. 1, proposed those three options to the board: preparing a “mitigated negative declaration” for the parking lot plan, which also includes a proposal to install solar panels; a full environmental impact report for the master plan area, including the parking lot; or no project at this time.

After discussion, the board took no action, and Jaffe said he would bring the proposals back to the board at its September meeting.

In an interview, Jaffe said that after the agenda was posted, he and district staff met with Placeworks, an environmental consultant, and learned that a mitigated negative declaration could be completed for the parking lot project instead of a full environmental impact report. A negative declaration certifies that no significant environmental impacts have been determined.

The parking lot and solar installation are proposed for the district-owned Dacus property, across from the campus at the corner of El Fuego and La Granada. The cost of project design and the negative declaration would be about $100,000, Jaffe said.

A full EIR for the proposed master plan expansion – which includes the properties not owned by the district – would cost about $200,000, and also cover planning and design for the parking lot on the Dacus property, he said.

Even if the board does opt to conduct the full environmental impact report, Jaffe said, there is no “statute of limitations,” meaning the document would still be valid if the board didn’t move forward with the master plan for 10 years or more.

During the EIR process, he said, the community would have “ample opportunity” for input, and additional project alternatives could emerge.

“The EIR would provide back a number of different possibilities. To say that is exactly what would happen, that the road would be impacted, that’s not a foregone conclusion. There are a number of different options that could come from an EIR,” Jaffe said.

School board president Tyler Seltzer and vice president Todd Frank did not respond by presstime to requests for comment for this story.

However, the K-8 district’s enrollment numbers, which are projected at 662 for the coming school year, down from a peak of 847 in 2002-03, may make it difficult to justify the larger expansion project.

The district is also considering an unrelated project, to rebuild or expand the school’s gym, which might also entail a new school bond to provide financing. The Dacus property parking lot could complement a new gym by providing overflow parking capacity, Jaffe said.

While Jaffe did not say which alternative he will recommend to the school board, he noted that, “The mitigated negative declaration and developing the Dacus property into a parking lot with solar is the one that we can move forward with the quickest, and it satisfies the needs of the school.”

On the other hand, pursuit of the larger expansion plan could mean a fight with neighbors.

“Do you really want to be at odds with your neighbors using eminent domain and lawsuits?” John Giovenco asked the board. “We urge you to choose the option which is compatible with the spirit and lifestyle of the Covenant and does the least damage to your neighbors, not the most damage.”

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