Does Palmer Trinity have the right to expand?

The question of whether Palmer Trinity School should be allowed to expand its facility on its property in Palmetto Bay is in the news again.

Back in April 2008, the Palmetto Bay Village Council denied Palmer Trinity’s zoning change request for a 33-acre mango grove owned by the school by a vote of 5-0. A lower court ruling supported the council’s decision, but now the Third District Court of Appeal has overturned the lower court and the village council saying that the Miami-Dade County Code and Comprehensive Development Master Plan should not be applied on zoning changes.

The Third District Court of Appeal told Palmetto Bay that it cannot deny the zoning change, but that it can apply the standards for “special exceptions” and “site plans” and the council members have the authority either to approve or deny the expansion, or any part of it, as they wish. There is a Special Exception Hearing on May 4 at Christ Fellowship Church, at 7 p.m.

Like just about everything, schools are governed by zoning rules and those rules should not be affected by hysteria. I hope the council is experienced enough by now to know the difference.

Palmetto Bay likes to think of itself as the Village of Parks, but it could also be called the Village of Schools because there are so many excellent ones located there. Look at Southwood Middle School (18 acres), with 1,664 enrolled students located right in the middle of a residential neighborhood. Even with the expansion, Palmer would only have 1,150 students on a larger piece of property (55 acres). If a public school can have that many kids there, why can’t a private school? It’s also important to note that quality schools do not downgrade property values, they increase them. Just up the road in Pinecrest there are three private schools within a mile of each other — Gulliver, Beth Am and St. Louis. The surrounding areas are primarily single-family residential and considered very desirable neighborhoods in which to live.

In Palmetto Bay, we also have Westminster Christian, Alexander Montessori, Christ Fellowship and many more, along with Palmer Trinity. Good schools make a community a more desirable place to live.

There’s a 2009 Florida statute called the Bert J. Harris Jr. Private Property Rights Protection Act, which allows for relief and payment of compensation when a new law, rule, regulation or ordinance of the state or a political entity in the state, as applied, unfairly affects real property. Palmer Trinity could call this into play, too. Palmer Trinity attorneys will base their appeal on a case that went to the Florida Supreme Court in the middle of the last century, a case pitting Ida R. Lear and her husband against the City of Miami Beach.

The Supreme Court ruled that “a zoning ordinance prohibiting private schools in a multiple-family district, while permitting public schools, is invalid because it had no relation to the public safety, health, morals, comfort or general welfare.”

Palmetto Bay reportedly has spent $250,000 already in legal fees defending itself against lawsuits as a result of the expansion denial. Continuing to block the expansion could easily cost the village — really its tax-paying residents — $500,000. Pleasing the residents on the perimeter of the school property is one thing, but should the rest of the village residents have to foot the bill for it? For the record, yes, I do have two kids of my own currently enrolled as students at Palmer Trinity, but they will have graduated from there and be in college or beyond long before the expansion could be complete (about 15 years), so they certainly would not benefit from the new facilities.

The rumors are flying on this issue, so if you have questions the best thing to do is call Village Hall and check with staff members there. Because this is a quasijudicial hearing, council members are not supposed to talk about it. However, the council members need to ask themselves what is best for the village as a whole.

Frankly, Palmetto Bay representatives should sit down with Palmer Trinity’s people and settle this matter before it gets any deeper into the courts.

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