Long-delayed decision on St. Benedicts Episcopal School expansion delayed again by Cobb commissioners

the sign in front of the Cobb County Board of Commissioners buildingPhoto: Cobb County Courier/Larry Felton Johnson

At the Cobb County Board of Commissioners’ monthly zoning meeting Tuesday, a decision was delayed again on a rezoning application that, if approved, would allow St. Benedict’s Episcopal School to build a new facility for middle school students.

The zoning document for the case, Z-78, describes the past continuances and holds as follows:

Continued by the Planning Commission from November 2, 2021 Planning Commission hearing until the December 7, 2021 Planning Commission hearing;

Held by the Board of Commissioners from the December 21, 2021 Board of Commissioners until the February 15, 2022 Board of Commissioners hearing;

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Continued by the Board of Commissioners from the February 15, 2022 and March 15,
2022 Board of Commissioners hearings until the April 19, 2022 Board of Commissioners
hearing;

Held by the Board of Commissioners from the April 19, 2022 Board of
Commissioners hearing until the June 21, 2022 Board of Commissioners hearing

District 2 Commissioner Jerica Richardson, who represents the district where the school is located, made the motion to hold the case to give the Cobb DOT time to analyze the latest traffic study, and to require that the applicant meet with community residents.

Kevin Moore, the attorney for the applicant, said that the latest traffic study was the sixth one conducted for the project.

The zoning document includes the following description of the intent of the application:

The applicant is requesting to rezone the entire 4.22 acre site to the O&I office and institutional
district and has filed companion case, SLUP-11, to develop a middle school on the property.
The applicant proposes construction of a middle school classroom building, library, music
building, and gymnasium with a plaza and central lawn areas for outdoor gatherings as well as
recreational areas, and parking. The school’s intention is to move grades 5-8 from the existing
south campus on Weaver Street at which point the Pre-K program will be moved there from the
main campus on Cooper Lake Road. The maximum student population for the middle school is
anticipated to be 350.

At the December 9, 2021 Planning Commission meeting, where the planning commissioners recommended approval of the rezoning, the applicant dropped the expected number of students from the 350 in the original zoning document to 240.

The property is located on the east and north side of Daniel Street, on the west side
of Cooper Lake Road. The nearby major intersection is Atlanta Road and Cumberland Parkway.

The rezoning request, and St. Benedict School’s plan, is complicated by the network of small roads around the facility that are already stressed by the school’s drop-off and pickup traffic congestion.

The Cobb DOT did not have sufficient time to review the updated traffic study, submitted by the applicant last last Tuesday afternoon.

Moore gave a brief recap of some of the traffic difficulties of the road networks around the property (read this article about the Planning Commission hearing held last December for a description of the traffic issues), and said that the county has legal obligation to approve the project based on St. Benedict’s status as a religious institution.

“And I also want to remind you again, the importance in this case in terms of some of the legal considerations I mentioned last time and reviewed with you the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which is applicable here, because this is a private religious school.”

“And because of that, there are certain legal considerations that we believe are important for your consideration as well,” said Moore. “And I want to remind you that again in this situation that St. Benedict’s not not test to be treated equally, but must be treated as well as non-religious assemblies and institutions.”

“So St. Benedict must be treated as well as the private development across Atlanta Road wherein the Board of Commissioners approved that rezoning with the allowance for a pro rata portion of a traffic light to go in there to address this very same traffic problem,” he said.

“Moreover, they have to be treated and such that any compelling governmental interest must be pursued in the least restrictive way possible as it relates to their application,” said Moore.

Mary Rose Barnes, from the Oakdale Community Association spoke in opposition to the application. She said that the applicant had made no contact with the surrounding community since April, and described it as “unconscionable.”

“We didn’t know what the applicant was even going to do. Were they go ask for a withdrawal or continuance or another hold?” she asked. “We did not know. We did not expect them to present an application without any information.”

“There has been no progress in the seven months on this project,” Barnes said. “Generally holds are not allowed more than two times.”

Another opponent, Christina Critzer, said, “While the intersection has indeed gotten worse over the past 10 years, so have the continued attendance expectations and exceptions granted, for continuing to grow St. Benedict’s on non-major-infrastructure roads.”

“And that is why there’s a problem,” Critzer said. “It is not because it’s a religious institution. That has nothing to do with it.”

“It has to do with the fact that we are trying to fit an O&I situation into an R-20 zone, according to the master comprehensive plan, that is causing the traffic problems, because it was never intended to carry this volume,” she said.

Hal Colbert, a Kennsington Green resident. said that he was in commercial real estate for 30 years, and that the street network was inappropriate for the use proposed by St. Benedict’s.

“And I will submit to you that changing zoning of a major thoroughfare is totally different than changing zoning on a site like this,” he said, “where you’re restricted with these very small little streets.”

“I put a tape measure on Daniel, and Daniel is 16 feet wide. Weaver is 18 feet wide. I did not take Cooper Lake. But I think this is the wrong use,” he said. “And I’m quite frankly, I’m very surprised it’s made it out the planning department with a recommendation to approve.”

“The site is too small, that’s almost an acre too small for this use,” Colbert said.

Commissioner Richardson called Cobb DOT engineer Amy Diaz to the podium. Diaz discussed the uncertainty about how students were being counted for purposes of the traffic study, and answered questions about the cost of changes to the roadway to accommodate the new facility.

“So basically, because of the complexity of this one, we probably should have had closer to two weeks because it’s not even only the review, like it is with a typical traffic study, in a few email comments between us and traffic ops and signals,” Diaz said. “But it’s a lot of inter-department meetings when we were meeting regularly with our DOT director to talk about this issue, because it’s so high profile.”

“So this this one, I would estimate, we need additional time, over and beyond the at least five working days, which we did not get for this …,” said Diaz.

After further discussion, Commissioner Richardson made a motion that Z-78 and an associated Special Land Use Permit (SLUP) be held for 60 days, pending completion of the traffic study analysis by the Cobb DOT, and with a requirement that the applicant hold a community meeting with neighbors from the surrounding neighborhoods.

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