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School Conflict Subsides; Expansion into Clayton Approved

While some initially expressed opposition to the plan by The Forsyth School, the institution and the Skinker Heights Neighborhood Association recently worked out their differences.

St. Louis city-based will expand into after months of debate about the merits of taking a home in a residential neighborhood and using it in an institutional capacity.

The Clayton Board of Aldermen voted unanimously to approve an operating permit Tuesday for the school. It also signed off on the consolidation of two lots located within city limits. The decision satisfies a city requirement that private schools operating in the area have frontage on Forsyth Boulevard.

(Read more about The Forsyth School expansion by downloading Tuesday's Clayton aldermen agenda.)

At the heart of the Clayton expansion proposal is a single-family home at 6307 Wydown Blvd. Part of the building, a yard and a west-facing porch lie within city limits. The school closed on the property this month and expects to begin interior renovations in January, according to a draft of June 18 meeting minutes from the Clayton Plan Commission and comments Tuesday from Head of School Mike Vachow.

The school plans to turn the space—currently occupied by the Tiefenbrunn family—into offices and fifth-grade classrooms, according to documents available on the city's website. Forty-eight children and 10 adults will be located at the site, Vachow said. The school will also remove a circular drive. Parents will not drop off or pick up students at that site. A 10-foot sound wall and a landscaped buffer will separate the site from neighboring residences.

There are no plans to grow the student population beyond the roughly 400 pupils who attend the school as a result of the changes, the documents state.

But not everyone has favored the project.

On Feb. 6, the Plan Commission voted to reject the expansion proposal after members of the Skinker Heights Neighborhood Association complained.

After the meeting, attorney John Meyer Jr. asked in a letter that aldermen withhold a decision on the operating permit so the school could meet with residents to "more fully explain its expansion plans and why the issuance of a Conditional Use Permit in these unique circumstances would not establish a precedent detrimental to the residential character of the neighborhood."

On May 31, the neighborhood association announced in a letter that it had worked out an agreement. That includes a provision prohibiting the school from turning another neighborhood residence into institutional property for 25 years.

On June 18, the Plan Commission voted 4-1 in favor of the operating permit.

Commission member Marc Lopata opposed the permit. A summary contained in meeting minutes states that Lopata said the project "as a whole is a detriment in terms of traffic and noise; that it will put stress on emergency services and will impact the visual appearance of the property."

Vachow, the head of school, responded that he does not think there will be an increase in traffic because enrollment will not increase, according to the minutes.

At the time, then-Plan Commission Chairman Harold Sanger said that while the project resulted in a lot of emotion on both sides, approval of the operating permit will not set a precedent, minutes state. At the same time, he said, it will give the city control to protect neighbors.

On Tuesday, President Bill Travis of the neighborhood association referenced the settlement in remarks favoring the expansion of Forsyth School. But he said a big factor in trustees' unanimous support is the fact that only a fraction of the property lies within Clayton city limits.

"It's not open season on our neighborhood," Travis said. "We're definitely very protective of the residential character of our neighborhood."

Former Ward 1 Alderman Bev Wagner read a statement opposing the operating permit for Forsyth School. She said the residential district into which the school will expand is the "single-most important thing" that has preserved the quality of the neighborhood.

Meyer Jr., the attorney representing Forsyth School, told aldermen he is pleased at the outcome of discussion with residents over the past several months.

"Most if not all of that controversy has been ironed out," he said.

William and Susan Piper are homeowners whose property adjoins Forsyth School. William Piper indicated that the couple support the modifications the school has agreed to, though he expressed worry about the openness of future administrators to negotiation.

"That's our concern," Piper said.

Aldermen commended the Pipers and the school for working together. Ward 1 Alderman Joanne Boulton lives in the Skinker Heights neighborhood. She commended the neighborhood association for its outreach on the issue while underscoring Wagner's plea to maintain the integrity of the neighborhood.

The school recently celebrated its 50th year.

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