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Education: SCV developers could be building a shortage

Special report, Part 7: An expansion of smaller developments might spell trouble for districts

Posted: December 11, 2010 10:06 p.m.
Updated: December 12, 2010 4:30 a.m.
 

With plans to build more than 30,000 new homes in the Santa Clarita Valley already approved by Los Angeles County planners, local school officials have to wrestle with a classroom conundrum: Those homes will bring thousands of new students to the valley — but where will they go to school?

It’s a question that is solved through years of negotiations between school superintendents and developers.

And it’s not Newhall Ranch, Skyline Ranch or the other mega-developments in unincorporated areas that concern school officials — even though those developments will likely add thousands to Santa Clarita Valley school districts.

Larger developments such as these can be required to construct schools and sometimes to provide other benefits to local districts.

Smaller residential developments that promise to build only a few hundred homes, on the other hand, are what bring with them the potential for overcrowded classrooms or even year-round schedules.

Smaller developments are either not required or don’t have the land available to build schools, putting an added burden on the limited number of classrooms and teachers in the valley.

“Small, incremental improvements of 100 or 200 homes generate kids, but you can’t ask developers to build schools,” said Marc Winger, superintendent of the Newhall School District.

“The impact of that could be hundreds of students. And I don’t have space at McGrath or Newhall Elementary School. It’s a huge problem for us.”

Skyline Ranch
Los Angeles County supervisors approved plans for the 1,260-home Skyline Ranch development at a meeting last week.

The Canyon Country-based development is slated to be built in the Sulphur Springs School District, and the proposal required school officials and developers to find somewhere for families to send their kids to school.

The solution: to build.

As a condition of winning approval for the development, Pardee Homes has agreed to build an elementary school that can accommodate 500 students once a portion of the construction is completed, said Vicky Myers, assistant superintendent of business services for Sulphur Springs.

Eventually the elementary school, which is being built on 10 acres, will be expanded to accommodate 750 students, Myers said.

Pardee Homes will also pay to furnish the school; the district won’t have to purchase any desks, tables or computers for the new classrooms.

It’s a deal that benefits the school district and Pardee,” Myers said.

“Having the latest schools not only increases home values, but makes the homes desirable to live in,” Myers said. “That’s the attraction for young families moving to Santa Clarita.”

It’s not the first time Pardee has built an elementary school for the district.

The company also paid to build Golden Oak Elementary School, which opened in 2007.

Newhall Ranch
On the west side of the valley, Newhall Ranch — the massive development that will bring almost 21,000 new homes to the valley — has been negotiating similar agreements with four separate school districts for several years.

Newhall Land Development LLC officials expect the entire development to require six elementary schools, one junior high school and one senior high school, said Newhall Land spokeswoman Marlee Lauffer.

“Schools are a fundamental part of the story,” Lauffer said. “We look at not just building homes, but schools and other infrastructure. We’re planning at the community level.”

Newhall Ranch is so large that it’s working on agreements with the Castaic Union School District, William S. Hart Union High School District, Newhall School District and Saugus Union School District.

As part of the agreement reached with the Newhall School District, any schools built in that district will be built to specifications much more stringent than mandated by California law, Winger said.

“We have a whole book filled with hundreds of pages of specifications,” Winger said. “It’s very specific: what kind of carpet, what kind of faucets. It’s very particular.”

Smart growth and infill
As mega-developments claim the larger chunks of undeveloped Santa Clarita Valley, it’s inevitable that developers will turn to smaller plots of land and plan “infill development.”

The trend is likely to be heightened by the “smart growth” movement, which calls for denser development in already-populated areas, and by state law that is twisting municipal governments’ arms into providing dense housing near transportation hubs.

An examples of such an infill project was a proposal several years ago to build 600 to 800 residential units, 600,000 square feet of office space and a 10-acre park on some 200 acres of land east of Railroad Avenue at the mouth of Placerita Canyon.

That plan was shot down in 2007 due to residents’ protests.

But the need for infill will become more pressing. Such projects either don’t have the room — or are not required due to smaller project size — to build new schools.

No room for new schools
The smaller developments burden existing schools with more students because classroom space is already scarce in the city, Winger said.

City planners work as a bridge between school district officials and developers to work out potential problems the smaller developments may bring, said Lisa Webber, the city’s planning manager.

“It’s in the best interest for the developers to have agreements in place to make sure those impacts are addressed,” Webber said. “That’s important because the Planning Commission and City Council take that very seriously.”

In the past, planners have done a good job alerting school officials of development projects being submitted to the city, but there is still the potential for classrooms to become crammed with students as the city continues to grow, Winger said.

“Let’s say in 10 years from now the downtown (Newhall) redevelopment plans are wildly successful and Newhall continues building up,” Winger said. “It’s generating kids, but there’s no more space to put the kids. That’s what really concerns me.”

Money’s not enough
In early 2011, Casden Properties LLC is expected to submit plans to build homes on a 95-acre plot of land in Newhall — part of the larger parcel where 600 to 800 homes were proposed years ago and failed to win city approval.

Winger said he’s worried how the school district would provide for the children that development may bring.

Casden Properties spokesman Darren Embry said once plans are submitted, company officials will begin talking to school district officials.

“It’s a little too early, but we would talk to the school district after we submit the application to the city,” Embry said.

“We want to meet with the school district and senior staff to make sure they understand what we’re proposing and what that means for the schools. We would want to accommodate the school district as best we can.”

As with any new home construction, developers are required to pay fees to help the school district provide for new students that new homes will bring, Embry said. Each school district has its own set of fees, he said.

But while money is important to help fund the school district, Winger said without more room in the city to build more schools, Santa Clarita Valley classrooms may become overcrowded as the city continues to build out.

“Money is one thing, but being able to house these kids is a whole other thing,” Winger said.

“I can have all the money in the world, but if I don’t have a place to house the kids, it doesn’t matter how much money the school district has.”

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