**This blog is written a little different. Based on a memo written for a graduate school class, the memo is apolitical and analyzes the Amana Academy controversy from an administrative standpoint.
The Alpharetta City Council is currently faced with a decision on whether Amana Academy, a Fulton County Charter school in Alpharetta, should be granted a zoning permit to expand in the Windward Business Center. The proposed building is not technically zoned for a school, but could easily accommodate the desired expansion. A great deal of opposition exists with the expansion of the school, mainly by influential members of the community adjacent to the Windward Business Center. City officials, however, risk legal, political and managerial implications based on the way they vote.
Amana Academy is a Fulton County Charter School established in 2004 that operates in Alpharetta, Georgia. Founded by a group of parents wanting more out of public school for their children, Amana Academy uses Outward Bound learning programs and encourages stewardship. The Academy also requires every student learn Arabic in order to “enhance cognitive skills, broaden students’ perspectives and bridge cultural gaps” (Amana 1). Although Amana Academy is the only public school to teach Arabic in the state of Georgia, a similar program at Mimosa Elementary Charter in Roswell requires students to learn Japanese. The program at Mimosa is also part of the Fulton County school system but has received no opposition.
Operating out of a building in downtown Alpharetta, the Amana Academy is restricted in the number of students that are allowed to enroll. In an effort to expand, the Academy scouted a larger property in the Windward Business Center Association (WBCA) on the corner of Windward Parkway and Edison Drive. Having been vacant for four years, the property would allow the Academy to accommodate 721 students, the maximum allowed by their charter contract. In terms of property use, Amana would add green space by adding a playground, garden and recreational field (Pepalis 1).
The building that Amana Academy is requesting use of is zoned as “Office-Institution, research and development, office-professional, light industrial and hotel conference center zoning categories” (Windward Master Plan 1). In May 2011, the Windward Business Center Association Board of Directors approved a variance for use of the building and land. The Board does not have authority to deny the variance per the Windward Master Plan. Upon receipt of approval by the WBCA Board, Amana Academy moved forward with its’ rezoning request to the City of Alpharetta Planning Commission so the property could be used for a school. The Planning Commission deadlocked on a vote, 3-3, and passed the vote to the City Council without a recommendation.
Prior to the Planning Commission meeting, members of the Windward Homeowners Association (WHA), the residential community that is adjacent to the Business Center, were unaware of the proposed expansion. Many homeowners attended the Planning Commission meeting and were angry to learn that Amana Academy was requesting expansion where the roadways were already heavily congested. Upon learning of the potential expansion of Amana, the WHA coordinated a meeting with Amana Academy to gather more information and possibly come to a consensus. The two parties did not come to an accord and Amana moved ahead with its agenda for the August 22, 2011 City Council meeting.
In the interim, publicity surrounding the issue continued to increase in both amount and intensity. Flyers were circulated throughout Windward by unknown sources. Some were informative, others were derogatory in nature calling those affiliated with Amana Academy “camel jockeys” and “ragheads” and insisted that Amana was a “terrorist training camp” (Shan 1).
On August 18th, Amana Academy requested and was granted a deferral from the City Council meeting claiming they needed additional time to review traffic studies, consider other potential locations, as requested by the Planning Commission and continue negotiations with the Windward homeowners (Pepalis 1).
The City of Alpharetta has three options in this dilemma The Alpharetta City Council has the option to deny the request for a rezoning permit. Recall in the Windward Master Plan that the current zoning specifications of the property permitted office-institution and research and development. Both specifications could easily be argued by Amana Academy. Therefore, the Alpharetta City Council, per the Windward Master Plan, could allow the school to occupy the building. The City Council would reinforce the verbiage “office institution” or “research and development” and allow the expansion. This option, however, would leave room for appeal by the constituents since the wording is not explicit.
The Council also has the option to grant the rezoning permit and allow the expansion of Amana Academy in the Windward Business Center. This option would protect Amana Academy by making the decision final with the wording being precise.
Both cases of approval could lead to some managerial implications.
Finally, the Council has the choice to deny Amana Academy a rezoning permit based on the premise that it will create a transportation issue for the residents in the surrounding areas. This option leaves opens the door for many legal and political implications.
Legal Implications: The Alpharetta City Council risks a plethora of legal implications should they deny Amana Academy the right to expand within the Windward Business Center Association. The fact that members of the Windward Homeowners Association have expressed concern over Amana Academy beyond traffic and tax base concerns, the supposed opposition to the teachings of Arabic and the possible Islamic foundations, leaves the City in a precarious situation. Despite the justification based on traffic and the possible tax base loss, Amana Academy could file a lawsuit on the basis of discrimination. In turn, the City will not be able to offer proof that the decision was made solely on economic and transportation bases. Although the City of Alpharetta denied the expansion of a Mosque on legal grounds, it would certainly justify probing from higher institutions if the City denied the permit.
Political Implications: There are strong political implications for city council members who vote to either allow the school expansion under the current zoning specifications or who grant a rezoning permit to Amana Academy. With the high level of political activeness in the Windward Homeowners Association and Windward voters making up 1/3 of the voting bloc in Alpharetta, members of the city council risk being replaced come election time.
There also may be political implications should the city council members continue to push the rezoning hearing back until after the 2011 election. Amana Academy was the petitioner for a deferral, however, rescheduling of the issue is now the responsibility of the Council. Those members of council who have opposition in the November election could scathe by without having to confront the issue, therefore buying themselves more time. Constituents may not think this is the most ethical sequence of addressing the issue, and members of the council could again face scrutiny.
Managerial Implications: Members of the Windward Homeowners Association argue that if Amana Academy takes over this new building in WBCA, the taxes will go to Fulton County and not Alpharetta. While this could be detrimental for members of the Council come election time, the amount of tax dollars lost is minimal, as it is only one parcel of land and a relatively small building. Should the city deny Amana Academy use of the property, Amana could leave Alpharetta and operate in Roswell, Mountain Park, Johns Creek, or anywhere else inside the limits of Fulton County. The City has an obligation to promote business that will produce revenue. A nonprofit school that sends taxes to the county could be seen as a betrayal by the City. Constituents want to see their city flourish.
Recommendation: The Alpharetta City Council should grant Amana Academy the zoning permit
based on the compliance of Amana with all other restrictions. Bob Pepalis made an interesting point in his article for the Alpharetta Patch, “If the Fulton County School System was buying the property it wouldn’t even come before the city’s Planning Commission…And City Council wouldn’t get the chance to make a zoning decision” (Pepalis 2). School systems are generally immune to zoning laws, but because Amana Academy is a charter, some restrictions apply.
Some members of the community have expressed sympathy for members of the city council due to the intense emotion and publicity surrounding this issue. Unfortunately, politicians are not entitled to sympathy. Members of the Alpharetta City Council were elected to serve the people by upholding the values of government granted by the Constitution. While it may seem that serving the people means “playing by their rules”, it more importantly requires that core freedoms are protected. Those freedoms include freedom of speech, which is why Amana Academy should legally be granted the zoning permit.
While I agree in principle with your position, a few questions come to mind that give me pause in supporting making exceptions to zoning, especially for schools. It seems as though there could be credible scenarios in which people may seek to locate their business, career or residence not in close proximity to a school. First of all, I gather that this is an “office park”.
1. If I were looking to locate my business and chose to do so in an office park that is zoned for an office park, I would do so with an expectation that the use of the office park would remain reasonably the same as what the current zoning is. The argument could be made that a school is very similar to “office-institutional” or “research-development”, but most municipalities have an additional classification of “educational”. If “educational” is practically “institutional” then it would open the door to say that “recreational” is the same as “educational” since they will have a playground which is very similar to “entertainment” so I should be able to open a night club next to the future school. The zoning for the office park to exclude educational has a practical aspect as well. The noise and activity associated with a school (700-plus kids being dropped off, mid-day recess, afternoon pick up, etc.) is disruptive to the daily functioning of a business. I could see if it were a post-high school educational facility, but feel that office and primary-high school educational facilities are not compatible functions.
2. (I will apologize ahead of time for posing questions that I do not have the answers to, I just thought I would bring up the point). Is there a minimum distance one has to remain from a school in order to lawfully carry a concealed weapon or live and/or work as a registered sex offender? (Remember right or wrong, someone can be a sex offender for having a consensual relationship…high schoolers). If so, what happens to someone that falls into one of these categories that currently lives or works within close proximity of the proposed school? If I chose to locate my business in a development with like businesses to avoid the daily distractions of dissimilar activities or so that I might exercise my second amendment right, I would not be too pleased that in order to continue to do so I would now have to move my business because an exception was made for a non-conforming facility. (Much like the Chickenman used to be conforming until the rules changed on him).
Now with that said, I am a proponent of a property owner being able to do with their property what they wish so long as they don’t cause appreciable harm to others. If the potential negative impacts of locating the school within the development are addressed and accounted for and the school is not subverting the Constitution, then let them in.
I believe Bob Pepalis’ point is very telling. If Fulton County Schools wanted that building for academic purposes, they would be entitled to. Although Amana Academy is a charter school, all of its funding comes via the Fulton County school system. It is also recognized by Fulton County and recently won a $50k grant from Coca Cola. It has been named best charter middle school in the state of Georgia. To me, this is a no brainer. The city council needs to approve this basic request and stop making everything so political.
When Amana Academy was originally proposed, the plan was to segregate girls and boys in school grade 3 and up. (See page 4 of charter petition, http://www.fultonschools.org/media-bin/documents/amana_charter.pdf) Interesting. I am familiar with the studies which show this can be advantageous for older children, but question why the founders (including an imam) wanted to set up an ELEMENTARY school along these segregated lines. We’ve gone over the whole ‘seperate but equal’ issue in this country before!
“Pending the enactment of the U.S. Department of Education proposed rule
amendment to Title IX regulations (34 CFR 106), allowing single-sex classes, Amana
will introduce single-sex but equal classrooms in grades 3 and up. Founded on the
compelling evidence of scientifically based research, single-sex classroom
instruction will have a positive affect on academic achievement and classroom
behavior, and it will facilitate learning without social distractions allowing kids to take
risks regardless of subject-specific role stereotypes or negative peer pressure. For
details, please refer to chapter 2 and appendix M of Amana’s charter.”