Wilton P&Z reaches agreement with Montessori school
WILTON — A lawsuit between a private school and the Planning and Zoning Commission has been settled.
The parties have entered into a stipulated judgment which will modify conditions the commission imposed on the school for enrollment and parking.
The stipulation resolves a lawsuit filed on Dec. 31, 2019, in Superior Court by Grumman Hill Montessori Association, which runs the Montessori School at 34 Whipple Road.
The case stems from the commission’s approval in November 2019 of a special permit application which the school sought in order to add grades 7 and 8 to its existing student body of pre-kindergarten to sixth grade.
The commission’s approval allowed the addition of those grades with a capped enrollment of not more than 40 total students for both grades.
However, there were two conditions on the special permit approval to which the school objected:
Enrollment for the entire school, which the commission believed had been previously capped in the past to 230 students, was to remain at 230, despite the addition of the two new grades.
With the school’s location on Whipple Road, a cul-de-sac in a residential area, parking was prohibited on lawns and landscaped areas at the school. Off-site parking arrangements, including busing of people, was to be used when parking demands exceeded on-site capacity for school events.
In its appeal, the school sought to overturn those conditions, calling them “unreasonable, arbitrary, illegal and an abuse of [the commission’s] discretion,” and not based on enrollment or traffic evidence.
What’s more, it said, the conditions hurt the school because they limited enrollment and imposed new costs — such as the hiring of buses to shuttle special-event guests to and from public parking facilities.
Under the stipulated agreement, those conditions were changed and lessened.
The school will be allowed a total enrollment of 270 students, 40 more than in the special permit approval.
Parking will be allowed on lawns and landscaped areas for special school events, with traffic cones and parking monitors used to manage parking and traffic. In addition, the school shall instruct its visitors not to park their vehicles so as to block any neighborhood residential driveways.
Town Counsel Ira Bloom discussed the terms of the stipulation agreement with the commission at its meeting on Sept. 14, saying its approval of the special permit “needed to be corrected.”
Doing a quick review of the school’s long-running history of disputes with the commission, Bloom said 270, not 230, was the correct enrollment number based upon previous legal decisions. The parking condition also needed to be changed because of past legal decisions, he said.
During public comment, Richard Tomasetti, the commission’s chairman said they had received a number of letters from neighbors opposed to the school’s plans to add the additional grades.
One of those neighbors, Carolyn Reifers, spoke at the meeting, saying she felt bullied by the school and objected to the increase in traffic the two additional grades would bring to the neighborhood.
“There will be 1,080 car passes per day and that does not include faculty members. That’s a lot of car passes for a small street. I’m upset, and feel we are being bullied. The school keeps coming back for special permits, then they sue the town. We are sick and tired of this,” she said.
After close of the discussion, the commission voted unanimously to approve the stipulated judgment based on Bloom’s review and recommendation.
History with the town
The Grumman Hill Montessori School first opened on Whipple Road in 1988. The site, which was purchased by the Grumman Hill Montessori Association, housed a Wilton public school between 1954 and its closing in 1974.
In approving the association’s initial application, the Planning and Zoning Commission excluded the school from enrolling seventh and eighth graders. Yet, it did not place a cap on enrollment.
Such a cap first came about in mid-2000 as a condition of approval for expanding several classrooms. The commission imposed a cap of 216, a number it raised several months later to 230. The earlier public school had enrolled approximately 300 students each year.
The school complied with the 230 enrollment cap, but in 2009 filed a special permit application that aimed to increase enrollment to 270. It also sought to increase parking at its grounds by 24 spaces. The commission denied both requests.
However, several years later, the Connecticut Superior Court weighed in on those matters. Its September 2012 decision ordered the commission to approve it. In doing so it allowed the commission to impose “reasonable conditions.”
The commission OK’d the enrollment and parking increases in July 2013. However it imposed 16 stipulations under that “reasonable conditions” guideline.
In particular, the commission required the school to build a structure that would limit access to portions of the school’s new parking lot. In addition, no one could park there between the hours of 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.
The school went back to Superior Court, arguing that “the parking-related condition of the July of 2013 conditional approval was beyond the scope of the September 2012 decision [by the Superior Court].” In its filing, the school pointed out that the commission had never imposed limitations on parking and access to the school.
In a September 2014 decision, the Superior Court found in favor of the school and the commission reissued its permit approval without the parking-related conditions.
The next five years were without dispute until last fall’s application for the addition of seventh and eighth grades.
Jeannette Ross contributed to this story.