Christians ready for 2nd land-use battle | AspenTimes.com
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Christians ready for 2nd land-use battle

A Christian school that persevered against Pitkin County in a land-use dispute 11 years ago is now facing a similar crusade in Eagle County.

The highly acclaimed Alpine Christian Academy is trying to alter its permit to expand enrollment from 150 to 220 students. The request includes expanding to 11th and 12th grades.

It received a minor setback last week when the Roaring Fork Valley Regional Planning Commission voted 3-0 to recommend approval for only 196 students.

The planning commission arrived at that figure by taking the school’s stated optimum class size of 14 students and multiplying that by 14 grades, including two kindergartens.

School headmaster William Collins said he would like a little more flexibility for when they get more applicants for any given class.

The school administrators and supporters are used to getting what they want when they show a little patience with government regulators. In 1989, the Pitkin County commissioners refused to grant the school permission to operate in a building in Holland Hills.

Heavy lobbying by parents who supported the school didn’t sway the commissioners, so the church affiliated with the school filed a lawsuit in federal court. It wasn’t the typical land-use battle. The church claimed its constitutional rights of freedom of religion were violated.

A federal district court judge ruled for the church and against the county. The county appealed, but the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the decision.

Pitkin County’s insurance company called it quits before the issue was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The insurance company settled out of court.

Memories were fuzzy on the amount of settlement. Alpine Christian Academy board of directors member John Eaton recalled it was $250,000 plus attorney’s fees. School headmaster Collins recalled that it was “substantially more.”

The victory was bittersweet because the school never was able to operate at Holland Hills. It operated out of homes during the court battle, then began renting space in 1994 from the Basalt Bible Church in unincorporated Eagle County, between Basalt and El Jebel.

In its request to increase enrollment, the school isn’t asking to expand facilities. It currently rents about 10,000 square feet of building space.

Just like a decade ago, the school easily rallied dozens of supporters to speak out at the planning commission meeting.

“I think it is a blessing for our kids. I think it is a blessing for the midvalley here and for the families that use it,” said Mark Howard, a member of the school’s board of directors and parent who sends two kids there.

Another parent said it would be a shame not to let the kids continue through higher grades together in such a supportive, high-quality environment.

“They genuinely think of each other as brothers and sisters,” said the woman who had two kids in the school.

The only objections to the application were made by Gary and Barbara Goldstein, retirees who live in the Sagewood Condominiums, adjacent to the school campus.

“I feel like we’re wearing the black hat and we’re in a stacked courtroom,” joked Mr. Goldstein.

But their concerns were no joking matter to them. They claimed the school’s expansion would be too big of an impact on their neighborhood, particularly because of noise and traffic. They also urged better landscaping and trash control at the school campus.

Mrs. Goldstein noted they moved into their condo right before the Alpine Christian Academy received its initial operating permit in 1994.

“We would not have bought our home had we known there was going to be a school with 150 kids, let alone 220,” she said. “We feel planning has gone berserk.”

Many school supporters left the meeting feeling that regulation had gone berserk. They plan to make their pitch to the Eagle County commissioners, who will make the ultimate decision later this summer on the request to go to 220 students.


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