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LETTER: Local Resident Urges Planning Commission, Council to Reconsider

Campbell Patch encourages the Campbell community to share its voice, opinion and thoughts through Letters to the Editor.

In a "Letter to the Editor," local resident Emma Stockwell says a proposed addition to a nearby school can have detrimental effects on her neighborhood.

Here is the letter, written by Stockwell's husband, Dr. Walter Stockwell and sent to the Campbell Planning Commission:

Dear Mr. Kermoyan,

I am writing concerning the decision the made by the planning department staff to recommend that the expansion of the Campbell Christian School be declared categorically exempt from the CEQA. This is an indefensible position that exposes the City of Campbell to a needless lawsuit. This recommendation should be reversed and the project should follow the normal EIR process under the CEQA.

This project does not pass the smell test -- this should should have been a red flag from the beginning. The school is proposing to do much more than simply build a few classrooms. If all they were doing was building classrooms then perhaps this project could count as a "minor addition" under 15314. The project is proposing a 26,000 square foot building that includes offices and a gymnasium. This cannot be considered a "minor addition."
However, even if you want to consider this whole project as simply a "minor addition," it still does not qualify under the conditions listed in section 15314. I quote the guideline below.

"Class 14 consists of minor additions to existing schools within existing school grounds where the addition does not increase original student capacity by more than 25% or ten classrooms, whichever is less."

This can be understood as a bar that the project must go under to qualify. The bar is set "where the addition does not increase original student capacity by more than" X.  So what is X?  X is "25% or ten classrooms, whichever is less." How do we interpret "whichever is less"? The California state courts have already interpreted this statement. In 2006 in the case SAN LORENZO VALLEY COMMUNITY ADVOCATES FOR RESPONSIBLE EDUCATION v. SAN LORENZO VALLEY UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT, the state court of appeal of the sixth appellate district ruled on the language in section 15314 on what qualifies as a minor addition. I quote from the decision:

"The critical phrase here is original student capacity. (Guidelines, � 15314.) Because CEQA is concerned solely with physical changes to the environment, "student capacity" must refer to the receptor school's physical space for housing students. (Cf. Cal. Code Regs., tit. 2, � 1859.35 ["existing school building capacity" is determined by multiplying number of classrooms times number of students]; compare East Peninsula, supra, 210 Cal. App. 3d at p. 175 [in dicta, equating receptor school's original student capacity with "previous enrollment"]. ) We therefore interpret "student capacity" to mean the number of students that can be accommodated physically at the receptor school. That interpretation is bolstered by the juxtaposition of the term "original student capacity" with the portion of the guideline specifying the maximum number of classrooms: The exemption is available where the addition to the school "does not increase original student capacity by more than 25% or ten classrooms, whichever is less." (Guidelines, � 15314, italics added.) By this juxtaposition, the guideline equates student capacity and number of classrooms. That comparison makes no sense unless "student capacity" refers to physical space for housing students."

The court clearly equates classrooms with student capacity. 10 classrooms would increase their existing capacity from 20 classrooms to 30, or 50%. Now look at the guideline.

"Class 14 consists of minor additions to existing schools within existing school grounds where the addition does not increase original student capacity by more than 25% or ten classrooms, whichever is less."

10 classrooms would increase capacity by 50% which is more than the 25% percent limit. Therefore, this project must increase student capacity by less than 25% to be considered a minor addition. In the case of the Campbell Christian school they are planning to increase their student capacity by 30%. So this is above the limit. Note that this does not consider any of the additions mentioned that could later be re-purposed to increasing capacity (the "art room," "music room," merging two classes into one etc.)

The City of Campbell planning staff recommendation treats the guideline not as a bar that the project must fit under, but as a door that the city will try to open as wide as possible to allow for projects to go forward without environmental review. This is not in the best interest of the people of the City of Campbell! Even without considering the addition of the gymnasium, office space, locker rooms, and additional instruction rooms, this cannot be considered categorically exempt under 15314 from the CEQA.

The CEQA is an interesting law in that the state does not provide an agency to enforce its requirements. The law and guidelines are interpreted by local agencies, such as the City of Campbell planning commission. Enforcement is left to lawsuits brought by parties that disagree with decisions made by the local agencies. In this way a clearly incorrect interpretation opens the city to a needless lawsuit. Especially in these tough budget times this is inexcusable. Simply put the burden back on the project to show that it does not create an adverse impact on the community.

As a local resident and homeowner in Campbell I am extremely concerned that our planning commission, and by extension, our city council is not looking out for the interests of Campbell city homeowners and taxpayers.  This project will adversely impact our neighborhood through increased traffic on residential streets, increased noise from the facility and the possibility that the gymnasium will be used at any time day or night. The Campbell Christian School is a registered 503(c) charity and does not pay property taxes. The kids who attend that school are not from our neighborhood. The school has made the barest legal effort to reach out to the community. They are not acting as good neighbors. We have two children attending Payne elementary, and we walk or ride bikes to school. Everyday we have run-ins with parents rushing through the local streets to drive their kids to the Campbell Christian School. They are not from this neighborhood and so have no reason not to speed -- they just want to drop their kids off and leave.  In the meantime they affect the local residents. This school generates too much traffic to go through one small cul-de-sac and the surrounding streets.

I will be at the appeal meeting on February 7th and plan to ask whether you have reversed this decision to recommend that the project be declared categorically exempt from the CEQA. This is a clearly wrong decision and must be reversed.

Sincerely,
Dr. Walter Stockwell 

References
The CEQA guidelines.  Section 15314 covers "Minor Additions to Schools."
http://ceres.ca.gov/ceqa/cases/2006/San_Lorenzo_Valley_Community_Advocates_for_Responsible_Education_v._San_Lorenzo_Valley_Unified_School_District.htm

He then sent this letter to Campbell City Council:

Dear Councilmembers,

I am writing to make sure that you are aware of the issue I outline below concerning the appeal of the planning commission decision to approve the construction of a 26,000 square foot building at the Campbell Christian School. 

The planning commision staff has declared this project categorically exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by calling it a "minor addition". This project is clearly not a minor addition to an existing school and therefore should not be considered exempt from the CEQA. This project is not simply adding classrooms, it involves additional offices, a gymnasium, locker rooms, classrooms and other instructional rooms. However, as I outline below, even if this project is judged by the CEQA guidelines for a minor addition to a school, the project clearly fails to meet the requirements. The planning staff has made an incorrect judgement in this case. 

The CEQA is not enforced by a state agency. It is enforced by the courts, through lawsuits brought against the agencies interpreting the law. In this case, this means this planning decision exposes the City of Campbell to a lawsuit. The language in the guidelines are clear and there is a good chance the City of Campbell would lose such a lawsuit, which could mean the City would not only be paying for defending this position but also end up paying legal fees of the opposing side. A lawsuit would also delay the construction at the Campbell Christian School which would cost them money as well. As a resident and homeowner in Campbell I would like to see our tight budget spent on more useful things!

The solution is simple -- do not declare this project categorically exempt from the CEQA and have the school prepare an environmental impact report as part of their planning process.

I urge you not to adopt the planning commission approval for this project as it stands.  Refer this back to the planning commission so that they can correct this mistake.

Sincerely,
Dr. Walter Stockwell

J Diment February 07, 2012 at 10:14 PM
As a parent of two children attending School in the Campbell School District, I'm excited at the prospects Campbell Christian School brings to the community. Any opportunity to further childhood education should be embraced, especially during a time of budget cutbacks and public school closures. I understand the new education building is replacing five existing structures; only adding four total new classrooms. This seems to be well within the CEQA guidelines referenced by Mr. Stockwell. What neighbor would want their adjacent school campus to maintain portable classrooms in lieu of a higher quality facility for the good of the children? Shame on you Mr. Stockwell.
ES February 08, 2012 at 06:30 PM
The CEQA regulations were developed to ensure that everyone in a community can live and work in a reasonable environment. Imagine what your environment would be like without rules and regulations. Dr. Stockwell is pointing to a regulation that the City of Campbell did not interpret correctly. If a city lets some issues slip by, what happens with other regulations? Why have a planning commission then? The real shame here is the distinctly UN-Christian behavior of the school towards the community. There have been no voluntary communications from the school about its plans, and any compromise has been at the insistence of the City. Is it any surprise that residents are angry about this expansion? When you have a bunch of angry residents, who feel that their voices aren't heard, then they will follow other channels, such as litigation.

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