Shun Graves serves as editor-in-chief and first joined The Blazer in 2019. He covers Branson sports, local government and transportation. His work has won several awards and also appears in the Marin Independent Journal.
Branson seeks enrollment increase consideration, first in years
November 14, 2019
Capped at 320 students for decades, Branson now seeks to increase its permitted enrollment, first through a March ballot measure aimed at Ross voters.
The measure, if passed, will only give the town council the power to allow an enrollment increase of up to 100 students; it does not immediately permit Branson to single-handedly do so. Branson must then apply for a Use Permit, and the town council would have the ultimate power to approve or deny the enrollment increase.
Residents have also raised concerns regarding the measure, especially regarding traffic. Though the volume of traffic is a chief concern, speed is also concerning, some said.
Since a voter-approved ordinance in 1978 — when Branson was called the Katharine Branson School and the Mount Tamalpais School — schools zoned R-1, or single-family residences, have had maximum Use Permit enrollment of 320 students.
That ordinance, called Ordinance 394, was approved by voters on March 7, 1978, according to Heidi Scoble, Planning and Building Director of the town of Ross. It became effective on March 24 that year.
The ordinance allows schools, public and private, in the R-1 district to seek a Use Permit of up to 320 students; it prohibits schools from enrolling students above that number.
“If adopted by a simple majority of voters in March 2020, the initiative would amend the 1978 Ordinance 394 to allow a maximum full and part-time student enrollment of 420 students,” Scoble wrote in a statement.
“The language in the measure would literally change it from capping schools in Ross at 320 to capping schools at 420 students, and that is the only language in the measure that would actually change,” said Hannah Arndt, Branson alumna and campaign manager of Ross Residents for Branson.
The measure would not automatically allow Branson to enroll 420 students. But, it allows Branson to submit a Use Permit for that number of students and allows the town council to consider and vet it.
Permission for an enrollment of 420 students requires a school to submit a Use Permit to the town council, which then approves or denies the permit. A Use Permit requires an environmental impact review, among other comprehensive information.
“During the Use Permit process, the Town will analyze the Use Permit relative to the tenets of the General Plan policies and the zoning regulations to determine land use consistency, in addition to conducting environmental review pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act to determine if any project impacts, such as traffic, parking, land use, biological impacts, historical impacts, aesthetics impacts, etc., would be generated by the scope of the Use Permit application,” Scoble wrote.
“So, we could go through all of this, and we could still be at 320,” Chris Mazzola, Branson’s head of school, said. “I don’t think that will be the case, and I hope that won’t be the case, and that’s all because of the way the election code is written.”
In fact, the current Use Permit for 320 students was granted by the town council on May 11, 1978, two months after Ordinance 394 was passed. That resolution by the town council read, “Over the years the School and its Board of Trustees have been generally responsive to the concerns of the Town and those residing in the neighborhood and have instituted and maintained numerous programs and policies to harmonize its activities with the general welfare of persons residing or working in the Town.”
“On June 26, 2019, representatives of the Branson School filed a Notice of Intent to Circulate an Initiative Measure Petition,” Scoble wrote.
That was the first step in Branson’s campaign to amend Ordinance 394. After receiving an impartial summary from Ross’s Town Attorney’s Office in early July, Branson then collected 377 signatures as a petition for the measure, Scoble said. The Marin County Registrar of Voters gave to the Ross Town Clerk its validation of 336 of those signatures, which Scoble said were more than required, on Sept. 18. The town council accepted them on Oct. 10.
“Note, per the Elections Code, in order to qualify for a ballot initiative 10%, or 163 registered voters in Ross would have needed to sign the petition in order for the initiative to be placed on the ballot,” Scoble wrote.
The town has compiled a report regarding the measure, studying, Scoble said, its fiscal impacts, accordance to zoning procedures and Ross’s General Plan, impact on city infrastructure and services, impact on vacant land, and impact to vehicular traffic, among other impacted segments of the town.
During the months between now and the March 3, 2020 election, the campaign plans to conduct a number of community meetings.
“The campaign is kind of just getting started, we’re working on getting our materials together and scheduling and organizing events that will happen this fall and early 2020, where we’ll talk to community members, we’ll talk to residents, we’ll probably invite people on campus, so we’re kind of in that stage right now of getting all of that together,” Arndt said.
After this period, Mazzola said, “it’ll go on the ballot, we will have town meetings and gatherings and try to educate people about how we will, for example, keep traffic net neutral—that’s our promise to the town, [that] there will not be more traffic—so we’re working very hard on a traffic plan that will do that.”
Some concerns have arisen from Ross residents near Branson, mostly regarding traffic, especially on the narrow, curvy Fernhill Avenue in front of the school’s main entrance.
School officials say that there will be no increase in traffic in the neighborhood with the proposed enrollment increase. Some pointed to studies by traffic consultants.
“So, we hire traffic consultants; they do this all the time: they look at the numbers and say ‘Is it possible?’ and it is,” Arndt said, regarding Branson traffic.
“We’re trying to show them how we can control the traffic; I think there will be opposition no matter what, [but] most of our neighbors seem pretty supportive,” Mazzola said.
Arndt said that there have been concerns about the quantity of events. She said, “You know, there’s some concerns: ‘Would there be more events?’ The answer is, not really.”
She added that many sports events are conducted at the College of Marin in Kentfield, and that many groups involved in events are not full themselves.
Colby Collet, who has a son enrolled at Branson, lives across Fernhill Avenue from Branson. “We’re very much for it. We think the traffic situation, having lived here for six years, [is that] Branson manages traffic very well,” she said. “I enjoy hearing the sounds of the school and the students there; I think the students are extremely polite and considerate of the neighborhood. We’ve had no issues or problems, and I think as a student there, it would be nice to have a few more opportunities for more kids to participate in school and increase the enrollment.”
Collet said that she does not believe there will be changes in traffic. “I really don’t; I’ve talked to Chris about it, I’ve heard her plans, I know they’ve done a very thoughtful traffic study, and there will be no traffic increase. It will only benefit more students and families for having opportunities to go to Branson.
“I also am of the belief that we bought a house near a school that’s been here for 100 years, so I think Branson comes first,” she said.
Emily Taylor, who also lives on Fernhill, does have some concerns about traffic, though she is “not familiar with all the details of the proposal, so I actually need to read it to make any final conclusions,” she said.
“I would have some concerns; I want Fernhill to be safe for everyone. For my kids to walk down the street, for Branson students to be able to walk up and down safely should they choose,” Taylor, who has lived on Fernhill for the past year and a half, said. “I have some concerns about traffic, but other than that we love being neighbors of this school. I like hearing the football games and the happy voices of students as they walk up the street, so I’d be interested in hearing more.”
Fernhill is intrinsically unsafe, she said. Her concerns regarding traffic include, she said, “volume, just the number of people, and speed; Fernhill already isn’t super walkable, despite the fact that I walk down it and up it often. It doesn’t have sidewalks, there’s a couple of blind turns, and sometimes students go a little quickly around those turns, which makes me nervous, so I’d just be worried there’d be more traffic.”