By Richard Yager….
Their concerns are under review by Marc C. LaFerrier, head of the county’s Planning and Zoning Department, following a near 90-minute meeting with residents and school officials on Aug. 23.
“That meeting was held in an attempt to reconcile differences about approval of the project and its ongoing development,” LaFerrier said. “Residents are worried about the effect on the neighborhood during construction,” he added, noting a second meeting is expected within two to three weeks to attempt to resolve current issues.
Although site preparation for the 100,000-square-foot school is well underway, both neighborhood residents and the East Kendall Homeowners Association have asked Planning and Zoning to review the permitting process as well as site development that will change substantially the existing property that was once the home of a small fellowship church.
Residents object to what some term “approval without due process,” said attorney Nicolas Fernandez who attended the Aug. 23 session with several neighbors. He lives across the street from the school site.
“In brief, what has happened is an approval for a secular school on a property zoned for church use,” he stated.
“Riviera historically has no real religious affiliation. The plans submitted showed a majority of the square footage is for school use with a small sanctuary added,” which he said conflicted with the site’s original zoning.
The disruptive nature of construction in the neighborhood and its permitting process remain open to question, even at this late date, Fernandes contended.
Agreeing was Holly White, president of East Kendall Homeowners Association (EKHO), who messaged EKHO members by email Aug. 24 that, “We must hammer out our demands as a community regarding the property that is presently being developed as a school and not a church or residences, as zoning implies.” She planned a special meeting at Continental Park’s Dice House to review the situation.
Concerns about increased traffic and safety were raised by EKHO’s Robert Bueso who said the traffic studies leading to the original church school approval in 2000 were based on study counts reported in 1997.
“We are more than willing to discuss our rights that have already been given,” said Peter Cohen, associate director of Riviera School. “We agreed in the past to sit with residents to discuss any issues they might have.”
Jorge Ortega, director of Financial Operations, and the school’s legal representatives attended the initial meeting with Planning and Zoning director LaFerrier.
Galloway Road residents began objecting to the Riviera School plan after becoming aware that an application to Planning and Zoning was given a “substantial compliance determination” for its campus-styled plan on the Jesus Fellowship Church property, located at 9775 SW 87 Ave., just south of SW 96th Street.
The former Presbyterian church building occupied by the Jesus Fellowship Church since 1997 had received approval for an adjacent church school of up to 150 students that never was constructed on five acres of the 12.2-acre site.
Fernandez contended that development of a school accommodating up to 600 students “is vastly different from what was originally approved under zoning designed only to permit churches in residential areas.”
White said, “The association’s objection is that the county Planning Department never held a public hearing on the size of the new school and a completely different plan than what was originally approved for church use.”
In 2000, the Jesus Fellowship obtained approval of Miami-Dade County Commissioners for a school of 524 students through grade 12 with stipulations that included erection of a six-foot concrete perimeter wall and both height and setback variations.
Current questioning of permitted use for Riviera School’s plan dates from that decision which was challenged successfully by the Galloway Acres Homeowners Association in an 11th Circuit Court appeal, limiting the enrollment to 150 in grades K-6.
However, that limitation was quashed by the Third Judicial Court of Appeal when it overruled the lower court, remanding any stipulations back to county commissioners, which restored the 524- student limitation.
Seeking potential relief through Commissioner Katy Sorenson’s office, the association was informed “the director made a determination that the new (Riviera) plans were in substantial compliance with those previously approved through public hearing for Jesus Fellowship Church.
“Therefore, no hearing was required,” said Sean McCracken, aide to Sorenson.
A compliance notice published in the Daily Business Review on Oct. 16, 2009 gave 30 days (until Nov. 13, 2009) to appeal the decision.
“Since no appeal was filed, the applicant was allowed to submit for permits,” McCracken said.
While association members continued to question the legality of the permit, the method of approval was revived when Community Council 12’s Board of Appeals on June 22 approved submission of modifications of conditions that Riviera okayed by Planning and Zoning, based on its compliance determination in October 2009.
In announcing the scope of its new school this year, Riviera opened a website displaying connected two-story buildings with a central entrance and two wings housing additional facilities forming a Ushaped core facing SW 87th Avenue. Parking lots surround school buildings with an outdoor swimming pool and athletic fields adjoining its eastern area.
The new Riviera Preparatory School is scheduled to open for the 2011-12 school year on SW 87th Avenue with grades 6-12 to meet expanding enrollments at the Coral Gables preparatory school, which has been in operation for 60 years.
Primary students through grade 5 will continue to attend Riviera Day School in Coral Gables when grades 6-8 transfer to the Kendall location with grades 9 through 12 added in subsequent years.