County commissioners overturn Christian school denial
July 10, 2014
A private Christian school to be operated out of the Mountain View Church south of Glenwood Springs will be allowed to go forward this coming school year after all, despite ongoing safety concerns regarding the nearby highway intersection.
Garfield County commissioners Monday unanimously overturned a planning department decision denying a request for the Skylark School to be located in several unused classrooms in the lower level of the church on County Road 154.
The Christian-based school, which will use the Ambleside International education model, expects to open this fall with fewer than 20 students, but could grow in future years to as many as 108 students in grades kindergarten through high school, according to proponents.
A recent rewrite of the county's land-use code subjected educational facilities to an administrative review, rather than allowing them as a use by right in the commercial zone district where the church is located.
The planning department denied the application, based primarily on safety concerns related to the awkward intersection at Highway 82/County Road 154, as well as problems with two existing driveways accessing the church property.
School proponents appealed the decision to the county commissioners, saying the church/school alone should not be responsible for off-site improvements, and suggesting a denial would be a violation of the federal religious land-use act.
That act, passed by Congress in 2000, prohibits churches and other religious institutions from being subjected to "burdensome" zoning and land-use regulations.
"We're being asked to make improvements to handle a whole lot of traffic that comes from somewhere else," school representative Rick Barth said at the Monday meeting. "We also believe the county code to be inappropriate" related to churches and religious schools.
Similar safety concerns were raised this spring when county commissioners denied a plan to build a 57-unit apartment complex on the adjacent former Buffalo Valley restaurant and motel site.
The odd-angled highway intersection is complicated by several private driveways near the Highway 82 traffic signal, including the Buffalo Valley and church properties as well as a mobile home park. The Rio Grande bike trail also crosses at that intersection.
Commissioners, in considering the school's appeal, said access and intersection issues in the vicinity remain a concern. But the small school operation is not likely to generate enough new traffic to make the situation any worse, they said.
"Although it's not a good intersection, there is a traffic light there," Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said in making the motion to overturn the school's denial. The board agreed on a 3-0 vote.
The approval is contingent on the school upgrading its fire sprinkler system within three months and presenting a fire evacuation and emergency lock-down plan before the school opens next month.
The school will also be required to obtain a driveway permit for both accesses from the county within one year, and to install stop signs at each exit point.
Jankovsky also recommended that, at whatever point the school grows to 50 students, it develop a student transportation plan to bus students to the site.
The school will have an enrollment cap of 108 students, which Barth said is the capacity of the classroom space.
Dan Roussin, Colorado Department of Transportation Region 3 permit manager, said schools are of particular concern when it comes to highway access issues and safety.
"But this issue is more complex than just one individual property owner," Roussin said. "We have to look at the whole plan and the future outlook for that intersection."
He suggested that the county and CDOT work with area property owners to come up with a plan to address deficiencies at the intersection, and figure out a way to pay for the improvements.
"This is a good opportunity to work on a plan to make this a better intersection," he said. "We're willing to be part of the solution."