The San Carlos City Council decided it doesn’t want to swap or lease park land to the San Carlos Elementary School District, but it is willing to sell it.
Tuesday night, the council expressed it was not interested in acquiring the Tierra Linda Middle School site as part of a land swap for Crestview Park owned by the city. The council must decide by August whether to put on the November ballot a measure allowing the city to abandon the Crestview Drive property as park land and potentially use it for something else. The estimated cost for a special election is $32,000, but there may be associated costs, such as conducting a community survey or information campaign. But running parallel to a decision about the ballot is whether the city simultaneously wants to discuss what could ultimately happen if voters agree to change Crestview Park’s zoning designation.
“Let’s give people the chance to vote on this,” said Mayor Mark Olbert. “This is a game-changing event because school districts don’t normally build new schools. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate to the community that two branches of government could work together.”
The City Council had a minimum of nine options to consider for the four-acre North Crestview site: make no change; retain ownership and improve it as a park and sports field; trade for the Tierra Linda site through a combination of land and money; trade for the school site and sell it to a developer for new single-family homes; sell Crestview to the district outright for a charter school; sell Crestview on the open market to a developer for housing; sell it on the open market for the highest offer; lease the land to the school district; or use the land for an Interstate 280 connection.
“If we are going to have an election, the public deserves to know what they’re voting for,” said Councilman Cameron Johnson. “I personally have come to the decision to make the site available to the charter school. It’s very important we have the best possible schools — it draws in some of the best and brightest. It’s a tough call and there are tradeoffs. This is better than the alternatives.”
He also added he’s happy to support selling or leasing the site to the school district, but doesn’t see the Tierra Linda land as usable for field space. The district has a deadline of November because of requirements on spending 2012 bond funds which it hopes to use to build the K-8 Charter Learning Center on the city parcel on North Crestview. The school would house up to 400 students and free up space at Tierra Linda in return for giving the city land near the campus which it could use for park needs like a soccer field and gym. The district wants a city decision sooner rather than later so that, if that answer is no, it can look elsewhere to build.
“I moved here specifically for the schools,” said resident Tammy Gordon. “The problem is getting worse, so we need more space for schools, that’s part of what our town has to offer. The long-term health of our schools is at stake here. I beg you to look at the long-term view.”
Another San Carlos resident, Jason Gish, noted that the new school would not be incredibly close to downtown, however, because Charter Learning Center is not a neighborhood school, there isn’t concern for needing students to live near the school.
“Carpooling should help alleviate traffic concerns,” he said. “It’s a wide street and we’re not adding 400 students to city schools, just spreading them out through the city. There’s no way around that the kids are here.”
Other residents aren’t so keen on putting such a plan on the ballot, citing limited open space in the city and concern over fast tracking a swap.
“On its face it’s not in the public interest,” said resident John Buchanan. “Discontinuing this land as park or open space is a violation of city’s requirement of minimum open space. I think you oughta reconsider it and consider other options for the problems you and the school district face.”
Residents like Mike Segal echoed Buchanan’s words.
“Once open space is gone, it’s gone forever,” he said. “Don’t lose it. Keep San Carlos green.”
The district Board of Trustees met last Thursday night to discuss possible alternatives such putting a third school at Tierra Linda, building at Arundel or putting the charter at Heather, said board President Adam Rak.
On Friday, Rak said there was no direction on alternatives but the board wants to make a decision on alternatives by the end of June. In the meantime, Rak said the district will get more information from a traffic study and get more data on the cost of each option.
Board Vice President Carol Elliott came out Monday night in support of the measure being put on the ballot.
“I strongly encourage you to move forward to benefit the entire community by helping reduce traffic and creating more space to play,” she said. “Let’s work together for a plan for the future of San Carlos.”
A huge hurdle aside from some neighborhood opposition is the fact that the city parcel is worth more than the school land and the city doesn’t have the millions of dollars needed to develop the space into a full park with athletic fields.
“You have to clean this up,” said Mark Haseloof. “You have to come up with a specific proposal. ... We can’t make a gift of millions of dollars to the school district.”
Some Crestview neighbors presented other options other than the swap.
“Build upward,” said neighbor Kathy Mark. “Highlands Park was supposed to be the fix for the field use issue. Let’s keep the land the way it is. When we have the land let’s build a couple fields up there. As for traffic — the only way to reduce traffic in the Carlmont area is to get the cars off the road.”
Meanwhile, Councilman Matt Grocott said the allure for him was simply to find more park space that could be used as field space.
“It looked like a real viable option,” he said. “It’s not that great of a field, looking at it now. I just don’t see it happening because the access to the Tierra Linda site would be difficult. The shine is coming off for me to look at a land swap.”
Not enough fields and classrooms is a reason to support having the school take the Crestview land, said Councilman Ron Collins.
“Good schools are a key to home values,” he said. “We need to be honest and clear about a ballot measure and not give people the impression we may do something else than we really intend to do.”
With the district anxious for a decision and a lengthy to-do list required for the switch — environmental review, for one — Olbert said it would be problematic to hold off on discussions about the outcome until after voters weigh in.
Rak said negotiating an outcome now lets the district do environmental review and soil sampling on the parcel now which, with November the end of the district’s timeline, is preferable to rushing after Election Day.
Grocott pointed out that the parcel was designated park land 30 to 40 years ago and a lot can change in the meantime.A protest hearing is set for June 23.
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