Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Waldorf school receives tacit OK

Detailed parking plan requested

Express Staff Writer

Approval of a conditional use permit for teacher Katharine Woods to operate a Waldorf School adjacent to Bellevue city limits is nearer, pending improved access and parking for the pre-school.

Woods has applied for a conditional use permit from Blaine County to develop the school on a 1.47-acre plot near the Chantrelle subdivision, just north of the Bellevue city limits on the west side of Highway 75.

Neighborhood concerns about traffic flow and child safety at the location at 100 Mustang Lane off Kirtley Street northwest of the Bellevue Business Park were discussed Thursday, Dec. 9, by the Blaine County Planning and Zoning Commission at a continuation of a Nov. 18 public hearing.

In particular, plans for seasonal festivals at the property that would create extra traffic in the neighborhood three or four times a year were discouraged.

If approved, the Wood River Valley's Waldorf School would join a network of some 1,500 Waldorf kindergartens in 51 countries. According to the Waldorf School's Web site, the goal of a Waldorf kindergarten is "to develop a sense of wonder in the young child and reverence for all living things. This creates an eagerness for the academics that follow..."

Woods plans to offer three programs—pre-school and kindergarten, after-school programs and summer school camp.

She said she was willing to compromise on her idea to introduce the community to traditional celebrations like the May Pole, Indian Corn Dance, plays and summer sun celebrations. The activities could be held at the usual location at the Sawtooth Botanical Garden, south of Ketchum.

The compromise, as opposed to a plan to shuttle festivalgoers from the Atkinsons Market parking lot, seems to be what will carry the school plan forward.

Adjacent to Spencer Eccles' Flying Hat Ranch and an irrigation canal, the proposed school's neighbors also expressed concerns about the safety for children near an agricultural operation.

"It is hard for me to believe these concerns are valid," said 30-year Hailey resident Julie Fox Jones, who said she grew up on a ranch near a high school. "When the swather's in the field, you don't go in."

Fox Jones asked the commission to compare impact of the Waldorf program on a neighborhood to the impact of Wood River High School on Fox Acres Road neighbors.

Further allaying safety concerns on behalf of Woods, Jim Speck said the canal was fenced off from the property and children would be well supervised. He also asked the commission to compare traffic impact of school commuters on Kirtley Street to the impact of agricultural machinery using the road.

As proposed, the Wood River Valley school would have a maximum of 20 students in kindergarten from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; an after-school program for 4-to-12-year-olds and a summer program for 4- to-12-year-olds.

A question was raised by Commissioner Doug Werth about whether the after-school program amounted to a de facto day care center.

According to Blaine County planning department notes, a day care center, which provides care for 13 or more children under the age of 12, is only allowed in the commercial zoning district. The new school's proposed location is within the county's R-5 zone, which allows public facilities, including schools, as conditional uses. The term school is not defined in the zoning regulations.

Werth asked the question of what makes an after-school program a school, as opposed to simply day care, expressing reluctance to lump Woods' proposal in with the rest of a school's functions. He said the application exposed a loophole in the zoning ordinance, a lesson that the county should heed and develop its own definition of what is a school.

Woods said that Waldorf after-school programs have drama and art curriculum.

Commissioner Chip Bailey said the after-school program satisfied his understanding of a school.

"I spent 15 years as a ski racing coach," Bailey said. "Arguably we were doing day care, but pressed for a definition, it's ski racing."

Commissioner Suzanne Orb said she was willing to give Woods the benefit of a doubt and several of the commissioners gave anecdotal examples of the gray area in the definition of school versus day care.

"Day care without educational programming is not doing children any favors," Werth said, capitulating to the overlap in definitions.

A final decision on Woods' application is expected Dec. 16.

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