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Montessori School suffering growing pains

Cory Fisher

When growing enrollment caused the owners of the Tahoe Montessori House of Children to consider buying the house next door, they had no idea what a complex web of rules and regulations lay before them.

Now owners/directors Susan and Stephen Ward are left wondering if it’s all worth it – especially if they will be legally required to use a large portion of the newly acquired space for wheelchair accessible bathrooms.

“Basically, we’re no further along than we were in September,” said Susan Ward. “We’ve been paying $750 a month in rent since July and the house still sits empty. We’re still waiting to hear if it would be cost-effective to buy the property.”

For the past 19 years, the school has been successfully operating from its 848 Glorene Avenue location. The one-half acre private school serves 65 students from preschool to the fifth grade. When enrollment on the elementary level doubled this fall, the Wards began to consider expansion options. The house for sale next door seemed like the best solution.

However, converting the one-story, 900-square-foot house into a commercial building would require adherence to an entirely different set of code requirements, Ward said.

South Lake Tahoe building official Lars Sterner says he cannot comment on the school’s future building requirements until he has seen finalized plans approved by the TRPA.

However, hypothetically under state law, if the house is to become a classroom for 20 students, Sterner said the new commercial facility would require one large wheelchair-accessible bathroom for each gender.

“Originally we were told we’d need three handicapped bathrooms – one for staff, which would be me,” said Ward. “The restrooms are large and costly – that would essentially kill the project. They would take up too much space and we just couldn’t afford it.”

But the Wards say they remain “in limbo” until the amount of environmental impact fees are determined by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, at which time the city will alert them of the new commercial requirements.

“We’re not trying to circumvent requirements – one handicapped bathroom would be reasonable,” said Ward. “We’re managing now in terms of space, but we can’t do this forever. It’s been tough paying rent on an unused building when we’re not even sure if we can afford to buy it. TRPA approval took six months – and everybody says that’s short.”

The school encountered its first stumbling block this fall when a few neighbors stepped forward to express concern that the conversion of the residence to a classroom would add to noise and traffic in the neighborhood. The neighbors’ appeal was denied by the City Council, however, and the Wards were granted a special-use permit from the city with permission to operate between the hours of 7 a.m. and 6 p.m.

The next step was to obtain approval from the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, said Ward. “They told us we needed to ask our neighbors, and that our hours would be limited to 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.,” she laughed.

“They had no idea we’d just gone through all of this and been approved by the city. The TRPA and the city don’t talk to each other.”

Initially, the TRPA insisted the Wards go through the same steps all over again with neighbors, said Ward, then later called to say “never mind.”

“In the meantime, this whole thing has taken months – the TRPA doesn’t return calls,” said Ward. “You’d think we were building a casino. The whole Embassy (Suites) Resort has practically been built in the same amount of time it’s taken us to get approval.”

If the house is bought, the Wards said they will also install required ramps and a holding pond to remedy a street drainage problem.

Once the the soon-to-be-determined TRPA environmental impact fees have been paid, it’s time to go back to the city yet again, said Ward, at which time the number of required restrooms will be determined.

“Then we’ll know if it’s financially feasible for us to buy,” said Ward. “Some of these decisions seem arbitrary with no regard for cost. I don’t think we’re ignoring the needs of the handicapped. We’re a small school and we just want what’s practical. I think one bathroom is sufficient.”


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