Atherton sues, but wants to continue talking to Sequoia school district
•School district needs to study environmental impacts of M-A theater, town insists.
Although the town of Atherton has sued to stop the construction of a $26 million performing arts center at Menlo-Atherton High School, the town is still interested in talking with the high school district and with the city of Menlo Park, which plans to share use of the theater, Atherton's mayor says.
"What I hope is that both of us will start backing down because we're very close to having it resolved positively," Mayor Charles Marsala said.
But Pat Gemma, superintendent of the Sequoia Union High School District, said the dispute still must go through mandatory mediation. "If it does go to court, I think it will be decided very quickly," he added. "I just regret that the lawsuit was filed."
The complaint alleges that the district acted prematurely and illegally by exempting the project from environmental analysis — something school districts are allowed to do under certain circumstances — before the district's Board of Trustees approved it.
The lawsuit asks the court to "vacate and set aside" the theater plans until an environmental impact report is done. The district had hoped to put the theater project out to bid next spring.
Impacts of concern to Atherton include rainwater runoff, traffic congestion and increased calls to the police department, town officials say.
State law tends to support school districts in disputes with local governments. The Civic Center Act, part of the state's education code, requires school boards to set guidelines for use of school facilities as community gathering places for activities such as artistic and recreational uses.
One community looking at M-A's theater is the city of Menlo Park. At its Nov. 28 meeting, the City Council may approve a memo of understanding to pay $2.6 million to share use of the theater. The Sequoia district's Board of Trustees has already approved the memo.
"I believe they'll sign it," said Ed LaVigne, the district's assistant superintendent of administrative services. "We've worked hard on this (memo) for the last 12 to 18 months. We've constructed a document that we believe all three agencies, Atherton included, can live with."
In anticipation of Menlo Park's council discussion, Mayor Marsala said in an e-mail message that he has spoken with new council member John Boyle and current members Kelly Fergusson and Mayor Nicholas Jellins.
The town of Atherton is concerned over Menlo Park's planned use of the theater, Mayor Marsala said. One proposal, dismissed by Menlo Park, would require Menlo Park to get a permit from Atherton to change a preplanned event schedule or deviate from the use pattern set during the first year of operation. Atherton sees its authority on this issue as coming from a town ordinance that requires special-event permits for non-school uses of campus facilities.
"I don't think the facility will be abused," Mayor Marsala said. Menlo Park's acceptance of Atherton's oversight of schedule changes would be "a gesture" to Atherton, he said.
Asked what type of event would result in a permit denial, Mayor Marsala said it would be a schedule change "that would not be conducive to the area," such as a Bill Graham concert or theater-goers departing at 3 a.m.
Atherton's ordinance, said Mr. Gemma, is pre-empted by the school district's obligation to open its facilities to the community and set guidelines for use. This matter may present opportunities for a compromise, he added.
Anatomy of a dispute
A long conversation led up to the lawsuit. Since April of this year — when Sequoia agreed to stop the clock on Atherton's fast-expiring right to sue — district, Atherton and Menlo Park officials have met five or six times, according to Superintendent Gemma.
Sequoia canceled its agreement and restarted Atherton's lawsuit clock just weeks ago, after the district and town officials couldn't agree on a date for a meeting that would have brought the public and the entire City Council into the discussion. Atherton filed suit.
Mr. Gemma said he "struggled" to find a workable meeting date, but noted that if a lawsuit was coming, better sooner than later so that the district might stay on track for seeking construction bids in the spring. "We continue to go back and forth with the town," he said.
Mayor Marsala said he would like talks to continue.
Airing of grievances
In response to Atherton's concern's about traffic, the Sequoia district has a standing offer to share the cost of a traffic study with Atherton and Menlo Park, said Mr. LaVigne, the district's assistant superintendent.
Creating a new entrance to M-A at the intersection of Ravenswood Avenue and Middlefield Road would help, he said. Atherton would have to approve such a step.
Asked about excess rainwater runoff, Mr. LaVigne said he was unsure about the theater's impact, but runoff will collect in and be released from new "dry wells." "If you're asking 'Are we going to handle Atherton's 50-year problem with street-water runoff?' the answer is no," he said. "The water that collects on Middlefield Road is largely Atherton water."
"Our main concern is that the area floods when it rains," Mayor Marsala said. "If they are building something new and putting even more asphalt down, they have to deal with the drainage."
School districts can forgo environmental analysis if a project adds fewer than 10 classrooms or increases campus enrollment by less than 25 percent. To trigger an impact report, enrollment would have to increase by 450 students, which this project does not do, Mr. LaVigne said.
Atherton also cites a rising need for police services if a theater is built. "For one thing, we're not going to have any Altamont Rolling Stones concerts," Mr. LaVigne said. "There's no Woodstock planned. We think that's a stretch."