New schools that want to open in Wellington’s residential areas will now have to get approval from the Wellington Village Council.
Council members voted unanimously Tuesday to change the village’s land use codes to make schools a conditional use in residential areas.
In commercial areas, schools with more than 100 students on site at a time will also have to receive approval from the council.
The two ordinances came up as a result of controversy last year over schools looking to build in residential communities, Growth Management Director Bob Basehart said. “Right now, schools can go anywhere without council approval,” he explained. “There was some consternation over a couple of proposed schools that wanted to go into residences.”
Basehart explained that under the new ordinance, schools would have to go through the conditional review process before opening in neighborhoods.
“They would have to go before the Planning, Zoning & Adjustment Board and the council,” he said. “If the location is in the Wellington Equestrian Preserve, they’ll have to go in front of the Equestrian Preserve Committee as well.”
Councilwoman Anne Gerwig asked whether the meetings would include public comment, and Basehart said they would.
“So there’s no way for us to say we’re not going to hear from the public on the issue?” Gerwig asked.
Basehart said there would not be. “Our conditional use process requires a public hearing,” he said.
Gerwig also asked whether preschools would be affected by the ordinance. Basehart said they would not be. “They are governed by separate rules,” he said.
Vice Mayor Howard Coates said he was on board with making schools a conditional use near residents, but worried about allowing schools of any size in commercial areas without council approval.
The draft of the ordinance allowed schools up to 150 students without council approval in commercial areas. “I have some concern allowing a school of 150 students… without us having a look at it,” he said.
Coates asked how 150 students was settled on for a limit.
“There’s no magic number,” Basehart said, adding that the limit applies primarily to private schools, since public schools would be larger.
Basehart said that there are 17 private schools in the village, most with fewer than 150 students on their roster.
Coates asked whether those schools would be grandfathered in under the ordinance, and Basehart said they would be.
“There is a provision that says existing schools would not be subject to these regulations,” Basehart said. “And existing schools looking to expand would also not be affected.”
But Coates was concerned about both safety risks and traffic bottlenecks if schools are allowed in potentially high-traffic areas.
“It seems to me that schools present unique parking issues, safety issues and ingress and egress issues,” Coates said. “I would like the opportunity to evaluate schools going into our commercial and industrial areas at the council level to satisfy myself that we protected students from a safety standpoint and our residents from an ingress and egress standpoint.”
He pointed to the Dunkin’ Donuts on Forest Hill Blvd., which he said has caused traffic issues in Wellington Plaza.
“A 150-student school could go in that plaza,” he said. “If we had that increase in traffic in the mornings, now we’d have a real backup problem onto Forest Hill. That is what I am envisioning.”
Basehart said that Wellington staff looked at traffic and parking issues and found that a school could actually improve traffic in a commercial space. “Putting a school in a commercial area is not going to make the traffic burden heavier,” he said. “It would be less than if retail space occupied the same floor area. Additionally, the parking requirements for schools are less than for retail.”
Councilman Matt Willhite asked whether the number could be lowered to 100 students. Basehart said it would be up to the council to decide the appropriate number. “If 100 students seems more reasonable, that is possible,” he said.
Willhite asked whether it would be 100 students registered or on site, and Basehart said the limit would be for students on site.
“Some of the private schools have flexible schedules,” he said. “The students may come in for eight to 10 hours a week, and then work on the computer or at home. We didn’t feel it was fair to place a limit on the total students enrolled when a lot of them won’t be there much of the time.”
Gerwig made a motion to approve both ordinances with a 100-student limit for commercial sites. “Until we pass this, this protection does not exist for our neighborhoods,” she said.
The motion passed unanimously.
ABOVE: The Wellington Village Council.