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April 21, 2004

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Publication Date: Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Woodside Priory expansion plans roil Portola Valley Woodside Priory expansion plans roil Portola Valley (April 21, 2004)

** Town likely to tighten oversight of use permits.

By David Boyce
Almanac Staff Writer

Woodside Priory School may have some rough sailing ahead as it attempts to win approval for its expansion plans in the face of skeptical residents and town officials in Portola Valley.

The Priory -- a Benedictine middle and high school on a 65-acre campus at 302 Portola Road -- now enrolls 339 students, 37 percent more than its use permit allows, said director of communications Carolyn Dobervich in November.

For its part, the town has no formal use-permit oversight routine, but typically acts on complaints, said Planning Manager Leslie Lambert. The town plans to "tighten up" enforcement as another step in the town's evolution from informal to formal procedures, she added.

Some town residents and elected officials are concerned about the school's desire to raise enrollment limits, host events that could draw out-of-town traffic, and build several new structures, including a 400-seat performing arts center, a fitness center, new classrooms, a new tennis court, offices and housing. The plans would add 53,000 square feet of floor area and 20 to 30 new parking spaces to the campus.

It may be several weeks before the Planning Commission considers the Priory's amendment, but residents are speaking up, most recently at the April 14 meeting of the Town Council.

Virginia Bacon of Golden Oak Lane urged the council to discuss the monitoring of conditional use permits. "There is something wrong here and you guys have to fix it," she said.

"We have violations taking place in town. We shouldn't be discussing amendments" to use permits, said Mike Reich, a resident of Georgia Lane. "If the speed limit is 55 mph and somebody is doing 100 mph, is the answer to raise the speed limit to 100 mph?"

"Your appeal is being heard," said Vice-Mayor Ed Davis. "The problem you're bringing forth is a real one. It needs to be solved."

Council members could only listen; a council discussion would require putting it on the agenda, which would happen if someone appeals the Planning Commission decision.

The town is receiving letters as well. Former mayor Bob Brown called the Priory's use-permit violations and the town's lax enforcement "alarming." As for the school's application to expand, Mr. Brown said: "An amendment to a use permit should not be a solution to cover violations."

Former mayor Bill Lane argued in a letter that the proposed arts center's seating capacity seems excessive, given the enrollment, and noted that the school may need to recoup expenses by hosting events that generate traffic from out of town.

In a letter to the Almanac, Priory trustee Stuart W. Young said the arts center would not be rented out and would be available for local events such as town meetings.

Other events have been planned, however. Priory headmaster Tim Molak, in a recent letter to Town Administrator Angela Howard, wrote to "inform you of two events which will be occurring at the Priory in the next few months."

A Phillips Brooks School festival was to take place April 25, Mr. Molak said, adding that since the event was on a par with the Priory's family picnic, "we agreed to allow them to use the campus." Deputy Town Planner Tom Vlasic denied this request in a letter to the school, saying that the use permit allows facility-sharing only within the town community.

On July 28, the Priory plans to substitute the last week of summer camp with a five-day International Benedictine Youth Congress of 150 to 200 students, less than the normal camp enrollment, Mr. Molak said.

Mr. Vlasic said the town needs more information about where students will stay before granting approval, and reminded the Priory of his "strong recommendation" to discuss its plans with its neighbors and interested town committees.

Late last year, the Priory held two informational meetings for neighbors. A total of eight neighbors showed up and no one seemed too concerned after viewing the plans, Mr. Molak said in an interview.

Town to respond

When the school's application for an amendment comes before the Planning Commission, it will be evaluated against the town's general plan and zoning ordinances "like anybody else coming in with an application," said Planning Manager Leslie Lambert in an interview.

Asked if the school could be forced to lower enrollment, Ms. Lambert replied: "That's definitely a possibility. ... They shouldn't be allowed to go over their numbers without the Planning Commission's knowledge."

As to the seating capacity of the theater: "The town will definitely have input on that," she said, adding that Priory representatives have told her that the theater would be unlikely to host events that fill all the seats.

Portola Valley has about 30 sites with conditional use permits, including commercial and equestrian activities, day care, fire protection and retirement living.

Town planning officials and the Town Administrator are meeting this week to address the issue, Ms. Lambert said.

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