A proposal that would limit the locations of new private and charter schools in largelot residential areas is creating conflict between advocates for the schools and north Scottsdale residents.
Some say the issue will limit the number of private and charter schools built and could ultimately affect religious groups that want to start their own schools. Others say the matter is about public safety and sensible residential planning, and has nothing to do with religion.
A Scottsdale City Council meeting in late April or early May will be the battleground over a proposed change in the city’s zoning code. If approved by the council, the change would prohibit private or charter schools from being built within 1,320 feet of existing private or charter schools in residential areas where the lots range from 2 1 /2 acres to five acres.
Planning commissioners on Wednesday were divided on the proposed ordinance change, but they approved recommending it to the council by a 4-2 vote with one commissioner abstaining.
“We will go before the City Council to oppose it,” said Jeff Maynard, executive director of Stars Preparatory Academy, a Scottsdale charter school with students in kindergarten through ninth grade.
Maynard said he thinks the proposed ordinance will not only limit the number of private and charter schools being built, it will also prevent existing schools from expanding.
Supporters of the change say setting such limits is the logical approach to abating traffic, noise and congestion.
“We’re not anti-growth. We just think it should be managed better,” said Bob Vairo, a north Scottsdale resident and president of the Coalition of Pinnacle Peak.
“This boils down to a question of whether it’s good planning to allow a residential neighborhood to allow private schools next to each other because they will create traffic and other intrusive activities that go along with it.”
Vairo said the issue isn’t about allowing private or charter schools to be built. They are allowed in large-lot residential plots, but only if they are able to obtain special use permits from the city.
Some think the proposed ordinance change could ultimately affect churches.
“It could certainly impact them more than anyone else,” said Jeremy Tedesco, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, a Scottsdale-based law group that works to advance Christian issues.
The fund filed suit last year in federal court when the city denied SonRise Community Church’s request to build a private school on its 10-acres at Dixileta Drive and Scottsdale Road.
The suit alleges Scottsdale officials, by refusing to issue a permit to build the school, denied SonRise parishioners their right to religious expression.
SonRise Community Church, 29505 N. Scottsdale Road, is less than one-quarter mile from Desert Foothills Lutheran Church, 29309 N. Scottsdale Road, which operates a school and has a permit allowing it to have up to 99 students.
SonRise appears to be the only church in north Scottsdale in such proximity to a church with a school.
It is unclear whether the ordinance, if passed, would apply to the church if it was to win the federal lawsuit.
Citing the ongoing suit, the church declined to comment on the issue and referred all calls to the Alliance Defense Fund.
Though he declined to take a position on the proposed ordinance change, Tedesco questioned the city’s logic.
“Unless the city thinks that churches or church schools or private schools have some kind of bad effect on communities, I find it really strange they are using the same kind of device typically used against sexually oriented businesses,” Tedesco said.
The Rev. Eugene Beyer, Desert Foothills Lutheran Church founder said, “I think there’s a big concern about churches. There are some denominations that consider a school as part of their worship.”
Beyer, a retired area minister, also founded Shepherd of the Desert Lutheran Church.
Supporters of the proposed ordinance change say the issue has nothing to do with religion or churches.
Planning Commission chairman Steve Steinberg, who voted in favor of the proposed change, stated at Wednesday’s meeting: “We’re doing it purely on the merits of the charter or private schools.”
Commissioners Kevin O’Neill, Steven Steinke and David Barnett said Wednesday they wanted the commission to postpone making a decision. All three said they wanted more time to review the issue.
O’Neill and Steinke voted against the proposed ordinance change. Barnett abstained.
O’Neill on Thursday told the Tribune he voted against the proposed change because he wanted to hear more from the school choice advocates who attended the meeting.
Maynard and Eric Emmert, a lobbyist representing the Arizona Charter School Association, told commissioners they did not know about the proposed ordinance change until 3:30 p.m. that day, after a Tribune reporter contacted them seeking comment.