By Gerhard Schneibel

The Sandy Springs Planning Commission voted Aug. 21 to recommend that the City Council defer The Epstein School’s application for a use permit, something that the school requested and that city planners said they would have recommended anyway.

The City Council will hear the application Sept. 16 and likely defer action based on the Planning Commission’s recommendation. The issue would then return to the commission Oct. 16 and the council in November.

Board members Susan Maziar and David Rubenstein abstained from discussing or voting on the issue.

Planning Commission Chairman Lee Duncan started the meeting by addressing the news that a swastika was spray-painted on Bridgewood Valley Road near the school the night of Aug. 19.

“We feel that this work that was done was the work of an extremely small, misguided, demented minority,” Duncan said. “It is not an act we expected to occur. We abhor it, as I believe most of you in this room do.”

Stan Beiner, Epstein’s head of school, called the deferral a disappointment in a letter he sent to parents. The school has spent more than 18 months planning the expansion and asked for the deferral because city staff requested more information on proposed busing and carpool lanes, he wrote.

Neighbors expressed frustration that Epstein is breaking a promise it made when it purchased its campus on Colewood Way in 1994 to cap its enrollment at 650 students. Neighbors said that promise helped the school get neighborhood support for the purchase of the site, where the school was established in 1987.

Neighbors also oppose any increase in traffic or stormwater runoff associated with the expansion plan.

The school hopes to increase its enrollment to 850 students over 10 years after completing an expansion from 106,000 square feet to 158,000 square feet, including a 450-seat theater, a two-story early childhood program building and a 20-to-40-seat outdoor classroom.

Under the planned expansion, the school would increase the size of its campus from 11.16 acres to 15.44 acres. Eight houses would be demolished on Colewood Way and Bridgewood Valley Road. The school owns five and has option agreements on three. A ninth homeowner didn’t want to sell.

Eric Olson of Underwood Drive presented the commission with a letter written before 1994 in which the school promised to cap its enrollment at 650 students.

“What these two parties did is exactly what this commission recommends that parties do … to get together, hammer this out and reach a workable solution,” Olson said. “Members of the commission, that was done 15 years ago. And the issue is, should the parties be required to honor their agreements?”

Andy Porter, the vice chairman of the city’s Design Review Board, lives on Burdett Drive and said that in the four neighborhoods surrounding the school, 10 of 1,134 homes are occupied by families with children at The Epstein School.

“These percentages speak volumes as it relates to the problems borne by our neighborhoods and how little the school families share in that burden,” he said. “The school has wasted its good will. They have frittered away their goodwill reserve because they treat the neighbors with absolute disdain.”

Porter spoke about the school’s inaction on instituting a busing program to eliminate the cars lining neighborhood streets at the end of each school day.

He also said the site plan the school has proposed would require massive amounts of earth to be moved. Contractors are going to “fill on one side” and “cut on the other,” he said. “What does this mean? It means they’re going to bring the big cats in, and they’re going to grade this site up and down.

“It’s going to be an environmental nightmare for our neighborhood. We’re going to lose trees. … People that are sitting here had a party in 1962, and they got trees from the Department of Natural Resources, and they had a party and planted them. So I can tell you to the day how old these trees are.”

Sandy Cooper, an architect hired by the school from Collins Cooper Carusi Architects, argued that allowing the school to develop its campus and build a loop road would draw waiting cars off the streets and onto the school property itself.

“It is true that this is a tough piece of property. And it is true that there is a significant grade change. But it is not true that we are redeveloping or recontouring the land formation,” he said.

Duncan said a deferral will give both parties time to work on a solution.

“There’s a heck of a lot of work (to be done), at least in my opinion — and I think that would be echoed by my colleagues — before we’re going to get comfortable with this one,” he said.

He said that if the school were to institute a busing program immediately, regardless of the status of its use permit, it would at least “start to show a good-faith record to the community.”

“Maybe some credibility might be getting built between the two parties,” he said.

Board member Wayne Thatcher said the school should have addressed neighbors’ traffic concerns years ago. “I think The Epstein School has just been a terrible neighbor. Why it couldn’t be proactive on this traffic issue … I just don’t understand that.”

In his letter, Beiner said each bus would cost more than $60,000 a year to operate and would remove 20 or 30 cars from the carpool line. The school also has considered providing a shuttle service to and from nearby drop-off locations, he said.

Ann Feldman, the president of the Mountaire Springs Neighborhood Association, said she is pleased with the stance taken by the Planning Commission.

“It was nice to have someone echo what we’ve been saying all along,” she said. “As far the neighborhoods go, I think we’re really waiting to see what the school has to offer or say in response to the directives that they were given from the Planning Commission.”