Carmel Valley planning board awaits environmental report on proposed Cal Coast Academy

Cal Coast Academy is proposing to build a school near the Clews Horse Ranch in Carmel Valley. Photo by Karen Billing
(Karen Billing)

The Carmel Valley Community Planning Board is considering a proposal to build a school within a rural area of Carmel Valley. At the March 26 meeting, the board heard school facility plans from Cal Coast Academy, as well as concerns from closely neighboring Clews Horse Ranch about the school’s noise and traffic negatively affecting the ranch and potentially threatening the success of the business.

The project is a process two, which means city staff is able to make a decision on the project based on its discretion. The board elected to wait to see the final environmental review document, the Mitigated Negative Declaration, before it makes a recommendation on the school, probably at the April 23 meeting.

The school and ranch have failed to reach a compromise with arguments over the zoning and the easement of Clews Ranch Road, the small decomposed-granite access road for both sites off Carmel Country Road.

Cal Coast said it has an official opinion from the city that the land is zoned multi-family, but the Clewses believe it to be within the agriculture rural zone and within the Multi-Habitat Protection Area. If a site is even partly within the area, the amount of development allowed is limited.

The Clewses argue that the location is not right for a school; Ted Shaw, representing Cal Coast, said that the school is allowed by right within the zone and that it is not within the Multi-Habitat Protection Area.

Cal Coast Academy purchased the one-acre property with the 140-year-old Stevens home two years ago. They refurbished the home and are proposing to build a 5,340-square- foot classroom building next to the white house. Shaw, of the Atlantis Group, said the architectural style will complement the home with rustic board and batten siding and a tin roof.

A 24-space parking lot will serve the school’s 18 staff members and any visitors. The school is capped at 75 students.

Jan Dunning founded Cal Coast in 1999, a unique school that customizes education for students in grades 6-12 with a maximum of six students in each class. Students have the flexibility to take classes in different time frames and locations.

Cal Coast senior Jack Barber said the flexible schedule allowed him to continue to pursue being a top-ranked tennis player and keep up a 4.9 GPA. While competing all over the world, he could still take honors courses. He had Skype classes while he was in China with his teacher in the middle of the night. Barber is now headed to Stanford University.

The merits of the school are not in question, only whether the school is located in an appropriate place.

“I’m sure the school is wonderful, but it can’t be wonderful there,” said Christian Clews, a planning board member who has recused himself on this item. “It would put me out of business.”

The Clewses have owned property in Carmel Valley since 1981. According to Bunny Clews, they had 20 acres, and over the years, the city condemned their property three times to take land for SR-56, part of the Carmel Valley Restoration Enhancement Project trail, for Carmel Creek Road and access to San Diego Jewish Academy.

In 1994, the Clewses traded 80 acres they owned on Del Mar Mesa to the city in exchange for the 36-acre property where they hoped to move their ranch. Moving the ranch from its former location on Carmel Creek to its present site took 10 years to get through the city’s permit process.

“I had to adhere to so many restrictions and it took every bit of my savings,” Christian Clews said, noting that it would not be fair if the school wasn’t subject to those same restrictions.

“I wouldn’t have traded the city 80 acres if I knew that there was going to be a school across from me,” Bunny Clews said.

The Clewses have concerns not only about the “dangerous” access road, which is limited to a speed of 10 miles per hour, but about the school being so close to a riding arena with all of the noise and traffic.

Clews said construction on the house has already caused a few accidents with riders, and there have already been impacts, such as fiber-optic phone line stretched to the school hanging low across their riding arena.

Shaw said they have made as many attempts as possible to be respectful and sensitive to the Clews property.

“We’ve really tried to go above and beyond,” he said.

There’s no PE on campus and Cal Coast has agreed to have no bells or alarms. To help mitigate traffic, two 12-person vans will shuttle students to the campus.

“The Clewses have said several times, ‘No, you have to go somewhere else,’ and it’s hard to have a discussion when that’s the starting point,” Shaw said.

The Clewses’ attorney, Kevin Johnson, said there is also a significant fire risk to having a school there. He said in the event of a wildfire, evacuation would be “impossible,” with both horses and students needing to get out.

Shaw said the fire department said the school does not present a significant fire risk, and it has met and exceeded the city standards. The school will install interior sprinklers in the building, agreed to bring a fire line in from Carmel Country Road for a fire hydrant on site, and has also agreed to close school on days when there is a red flag alert in the coastal areas.

“The reality is, all of Carmel Valley is in a high fire risk zone,” said board member Allen Kashani.

Kashani said he was most concerned about the impact of the school’s traffic on the road and the potential economic hardship on the ranch. He noted that as the land is zoned multi-family, as many as 15 units and 150 average daily trips could be approved on that land. By comparison, the school would be a lower-impact use.

The rural area in question, the Carmel Valley Restoration Enhancement Project, was given to Carmel Valley as mitigation for the construction of SR-56 and features a much-used 1.6 mile trail between Carmel Country and El Camino Real.

CV Planning Board Chair Frisco White said there is a lot of pride in the CVREP, and it will be up to the board to determine whether the school use is compatible with the vision for this area.

“It’s about keeping the nature of CVREP as a rural place, not a busy place with dozens of cars and buildings up against the trail,” said resident Ken Farinsky.

“They both involve a rural setting, and I can understand why a school would want that as it does accelerate learning. I’m sympathetic to that. But I’m also sympathetic to the Clews Ranch,” said board member Nancy Novak. “The question is if there is a way to find a solution so that the business will still thrive and that the school can teach their children in this environment.”