NB council tables vote on permit for charter school

Neighbor complaints, traffic concerns discussed

Phoenix Academy of Art and Science charter school, which is affiliated with Art and Science Academy charter school in Isanti, is looking to use already existing classroom space at Access Church in North Branch for its new school, set to start in fall of this year.  Photo by Derrick Knutson
Phoenix Academy of Art and Science charter school, which is affiliated with Art and Science Academy charter school in Isanti, is looking to use already existing classroom space at Access Church in North Branch for its new school, set to start in fall of this year.
Photo by Derrick Knutson

Complaints about Access Church by two neighbors at the Feb. 28 North Branch City Council meeting prompted the council to unanimously table a vote on approving a permit for the Phoenix Academy of Art and Science charter school at the church while city staff reviews Access’ current conditional use permit for possible violations.
The council will address the permit again at a future meeting before March 12.
Neighbor Brian Sahr’s complaints focused on concerns he has about increased traffic if the charter school were to be approved.
“Access Church came in there many years ago now,” he said. “The problems are really deeper than you think on that highway. I live right across from Access Church. I deal with it on a daily basis, when I’m mowing my lawn. I’ve actually had an 18-wheeler on nine wheels coming right at me. I deal with it every day, and I hear the noise. I hear the tire squeal. I hear people honking.”
Neighbor Jim Aufderhar took his complaints a step further and drafted a two-page letter that he presented to the council. Like Sahr, Aufderhar mentioned his worries about traffic dangers in the area, but he also said he’s seen crime in the area and code violations including lights being left on later than code allows and he’s heard “loud band(s) with thumping bass right through the windows usually every Thursday night and Sunday mornings as early as 6:30 a.m.,” which he said is a noise violation.
North Branch Community Development Director Carla Vita noted during the meeting that the city had not received complaints about Access Church until a day before the permit for Phoenix Academy was to be approved.

Staff, council concerns
Vita said city staff has expressed concerns about the traffic flow at the intersection of Highway 95 and 392nd Street.
“The city does not have any jurisdiction on Highway 95, as we all know, but we have notified MnDOT of the proposed charter school,” Vita said. “MnDOT has indicated that basically the numbers of the increased amount of people utilizing that site has not triggered a traffic study, per their requirements.”
If a traffic study did need to be conducted at the intersection at some point, Mayor Kirsten-Hagen Kennedy wanted to know who would bear the cost for that study.
“At this time, our ordinance says a traffic study is borne by the developer, the applicants,” Vita said, noting that an applicant for a different project recently paid $10,000 for a study. “As far as the upgrade of the intersection, MnDOT made it very clear they don’t have the $700,000 to $1 million to upgrade that road. I would suspect that they would be looking at the city. In the past, when we’ve had a large development like that, we normally would ask the applicant to participate. That would ultimately be a decision by the City Council.”
Both Hagen-Kennedy and Council Member Robert Canada made comments about how they thought the stretch of Highway 95 near Access Church is unsafe.
“It is dangerous, and I would almost like to see a traffic study before we go further,” Canada said. “I would like to know what MnDOT plans to do with this intersection before we go any further. It sounds like it’s going to be expensive, and it sounds like the church can’t afford it.”
Council Member Kathy Blomquist said she doesn’t anticipate the kindergarten through second-grade charter school increasing traffic in the area substantially because just one bus would likely be enough to transport most of its students to the school, but she did want Access Church’s current conditional use permit reviewed for any possible violations before the permit for Phoenix Academy would be approved.
“I don’t think the school is going to contribute a lot (of traffic),” Blomquist said. “There’s going to be a bus in and a bus out, but I would rather get the (conditional use permit) reviewed for the violations first.”
Council Member Kelly Neider said she was a youth pastor at Access Church — formerly called Abundant Life — from 2000 to 2006, and she didn’t hear about any alleged crime in the area during her time there.
“We ran a youth group of over 160 students,” she said. “We ran some rough kids through there. I don’t remember anybody ever coming to us and saying there was a problem. Being on the staff at the church for as long as I was, I think I would have probably heard about it.”

Pastor responds
Reached after the meeting, Access pastor Kevin Haseltine said he understands the neighbors’ concerns about development in the area, and he said the church is willing to work with anyone who has concerns.
“I know way back when we built the building here, some of the neighbors felt like they were in a rural setting that was very quiet,” he said. “We bought this property and built this church. There used to be horses standing in this field, and there aren’t horses anymore. I don’t think that we’ve brought any disruption to the community, except the fact that we’re here. I see most of it just being a growth issue. I think traffic on 95 has increased, whether we were here or not.”
Haseltine said he doesn’t foresee there being any issues with the school, and he is meeting with officials from the city on Wednesday to talk about the concerns expressed about the church.
“The church’s stance is we would love to work with everybody,” he said. “We definitely would. This is what it’s all about. The community gets to voice their opinion. I don’t think it’s going to stop anything from happening, but the city does have to do their due diligence and check on things.”

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