In an unusual land-use decision that bowed to public concerns over firearms and economic activity, the Flagler Beach City Commission on Thursday rejected a church’s request to run a non-traditional parochial one-room school on South 6th Street, between South Central and South Daytona avenues.
The decision will prevent the 15-year-old Coastal Community Church from opening a private, Christian school that would have enrolled 15 students, all of them to be taught by two teachers in the same room. (The church is still officially registered as Coastal Community Church, as its papers to the city indicate. It renamed itself Coastal Family Church in the public’s eye.)
“All our students are screened, so it’s not anyone can come, we try to fit our students best to the education that we can provide them but also how they would fit with inside of our classroom,” Rev. Jonathan Rogers, principal at the school, said. No one would be bused. Breakfast and lunch would not be provided.
Numerous churches and other religious organizations have set up such schools, often to take advantage of Florida’s vastly expanded voucher program that diverts public funds to private and parochial schools, at taxpayers’ expense. The schools don’t have to follow state standards nor submit to public education standards. Some of the private schools exceed the standards. Some do not. But there is little accountability. The unregulated system enables some schools to be more financially profitable to those who run them than intellectually beneficial to those who attend them.
Coastal’s school is licensed for first through 12th grade, its director said. But it wasn’t clear if enrollment would be limited to grades 1 through 7, as proposed in the documentation provided by the city, or through grade 12, as suggested by Rogers at the meeting. The principal did not explain how all grades would be appropriately taught in the same schoolroom, though he wasn’t required to. The city had no say in those matters. It could only rule on whether the land use complied with the city’s rules.
It was a divided vote, 3-2, with Commissioner Ken Bryan, Rick Belhumeur and Eric Cooley in the majority. Bryan cited issues with the school pre-empting the possibility of wine bars or other businesses that serve or sell alcohol from opening in the vicinity.
There were vaguer concerns about firearms, now that state law allows the carrying of concealed weapons in any church or church property, including schools located on those properties–a direct contradiction with state law, which forbids weapons on school campuses. And there were a dozen letters from. nearby residents who raised other issues such as parking, noise and turning a one-year exception into a permanent feature of the neighborhood. Many of those residents addressed the commission. Thursday evening.
A property owner has three properties within 500 feet of the church. He’s had no issues with the coffee shop or the church. “I don’t want people sitting in the parking lot waiting for the school to open with the cars running or their kids running around the parking lot, making a lot of noise,” the property owner said. “You know what happened to me one time? I lived in an apartment. My car alarm went off and I went outside there. There was a 6 year old that threw a rock and landed right on top of my car. $1,000 later I was done, OK? They’re small, but they can do a lot of damage.” He said he wanted to make sure the school was “run properly.” He also favored gating the school property.
A South Central Avenue resident was concerned about the accumulation of special exceptions that are attaching to the property, since those special exceptions can become permanent allowances on the specific property even when it changes hands. In a medium density residential neighborhood, that worries her.
The city received a dozen letters of concerns from residents. “Keep in mind that in our area, the Flagler Sea Cottages,” one resident told commissioners, “we’ve had a lot of really bad experiences with these special exceptions. They’ve not worked in our favor and they seem to be endangering the quality of our life.” She added, with a degree of hyperbole: “When I see this application, in my mind, I’m seeing a miniature Old Kings Elementary School vision and a special exception slippery slope nightmare in my future.” Old Kings Elementary, the public school, has an enrollment of over 1,000 students and sprawls over several acres.
Another resident raised a more directly pertinent issue: if a school were to open in the area, opening certain businesses would be prohibited within a given distance–smoke shop, wine bar or an alcohol. That resonated with Bryan.
The church property has a coffee shop as well. Bryan was concerned about the new provision in state law that allows people to carry concealed weapons onto the property, simply because it is part of a church. “You can conceal carry in the church,” City Attorney Drew Smith said, “and one of their points of debate was, well, if you’re carrying in the church but a lot churches have schools. How do we resolve that? They did not resolve that. But this is not the only circumstance this conflict comes up. Nor the only jurisdiction.”
The city’s planning board had recommended approval of the school in a 5-2 vote, with a set of conditions, some of them proposed by the church. There was a debate over how long those special exceptions would be in effect. “We do not have ability as the city to compel or required someone to put a limit on the duration of the special exception,” Smith said. “However, if an applicant volunteers a limitation on the duration of the special exception, you can accept that. You can then make it a condition of approval based on the fact that it was a volunteered limit.”
Commissioner Jane Mealy motioned to approve the request with exceptions that would be in effect now through the end of June 2022, renewable yearly after that. Enrollment would be limited to 15 students, parking spaces would be limited to two in front of the building. The city would have no say regarding grades and eating facilities.
Mealy had the mayor’s support. “The church has been there for 14 years,” Mayor Suzie Johnston said. “And for 14 years they’ve been good neighbors within our community and have improved to building. They brought a business which has been an asset to our community and it would be nice to see a chance given to a school to see how it can enhance our community.” (The church moved its “principal place of business,” as the state’s Division of Corporations records it, from 6 Post Lane in Palm Coast to 206 South 6th in Flagler Beach in 2009. The church’s five directors are all Palm Coast or Bunnell residents.)
But the mayor doesn’t have a vote in the matter. Mealy’s motion failed. She was joined only by Commissioner Deborah Phillips. Bryan then made a motion to deny the application, a motion that lined up the same votes.