Sanderling Waldorf School receives commission approval for permit changes

(File photo)

Encinitas construction project still faces other hurdles


Previously approved environmental documents for a controversial private school construction project can be modified to add new information about endangered gnatcatchers and wetlands buffers, the Encinitas Planning Commission decided April 16.

However, the Sanderling Waldorf School construction plans still face other hurdles. Last year’s commission decision to approve the project’s permits has been appealed to the City Council by several different parties, Planning Commission Chairman Bruce Ehlers said during the meeting. He added that he believed the commission’s decision that night also would likely be debated by the council.

It’s a very unusual situation, he noted, mentioning, “I’ve never had an item before me that was already appealed.”

The permit modification vote was 4-0, with Commissioner Susan Sherod abstaining. Before she announced she would abstain, Sherod said she strongly opposed plans to remove five of the six huge Torrey pine trees on the proposed school site, a 3.3-acre property on the private Mays Hollow Lane just west of Quail Gardens Drive.

“I think they should have to keep those trees ... they’re healthy,” she said.

Sherod also said she was “very uncomfortable” with the design of a proposed pedestrian pathway because she thought it would harm a wetlands area.

Others on the commission said the proposed school design might not be perfect, but the Waldorf school is known for its environmentally-friendly philosophy and its proposed school design likely would have far less of an impact on the site than other construction options.

“I would have done things differently, probably,” when it came to saving the Torrey pines trees, said Commissioner Brett Farrow, an architect. But, he cautioned, if the commission doesn’t back the school proposal, it might end up with a high-density housing project instead.

Plans call for the school complex to be built in two phases. The first phase will be temporary buildings and the second will consist of eight permanent structures totaling 31,105 square feet. An estimated 270 kindergarten through eighth-grade students will eventually attend the facility, city documents indicate.

The private school was founded in 1996 as a home-based, parent-toddler group and later set up shop in a Masonic Lodge building on Cardiff’s Windsor Road. In recent years, school operations have been split between two campuses, with children ages 3 to 6 attending the school’s nursery/kindergarten program on Valley Street in Carlsbad, and first- through eighth-graders attending a campus on Business Park Drive in Vista.

At the April meeting, planning commissioners were asked to allow several modifications to environmental documents they approved in April 2019 when they voted to grant the project its major use, design review and coastal development permits. The new modifications include adding:

Information about surveys for endangered California gnatcatchers and new measures to protect their nesting areas;

A plan for a pedestrian and bicycle pathway across privately owned land adjacent to the school site;

An increase in the width of a wetland buffer area, which was originally proposed to be 25 feet wide and now will range from 32 to 59 feet.

At April’s hearing, project engineering consultant Bill Hoffman told commissioners the changes were designed to strengthen the project’s environmental documents and done “in an abundance of caution.”

The new revisions will make the project’s environmental documents “stronger and more defensive than the one you certified last year,” he said.

More than 200 school supporters turned out for last year’s hearing on the project plans and the meeting didn’t conclude until after midnight. Last month’s hearing was conducted with both an in-room and online components -- about half the commissioners and interested parties participated via Zoom -- to comply with measures designed to stop the spread of the coronavirus. The general public couldn’t attend, but people were invited to submit comments via online and each comment was read aloud by city employees. Given those restrictions, school supporters decided not to flood the commission with emails, Hoffman said.

Commissioners did receive five email comments from people opposed to the project. They raised concerns about tree removal plans, the pathway design and student safety during pickup and drop-off periods.

— Barbara Henry is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune