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Work began Friday on a permanent driveway linking Draper's American Preparatory Academy to a public road, advancing a long-held goal for the landlocked school.
But the development is cold comfort for school administrators, who have their eyes set on reaching a different road, and for residents in Draper's Inauguration Park neighborhood, who saw a house demolished in the name of charter expansion.
"They've just had poor planning to begin with since they started the school," said neighbor Tim Ward.
American Preparatory Academy currently relies on an easement to allow vehicle traffic to and from its campus. A road 11950 South is located on the school's south side, but is blocked by a narrow strip of private land.
The school attempted to condemn the land strip through eminent domain, but a 3rd District Court judge ruled that American Preparatory Academy's unelected governing board did not have that authority because it does not qualify as a board of education.
At a recent community meeting, Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, told frustrated residents that he is working with the Utah Board of Education to resolve the issue.
"It's my hope that we can get the state office of education to pull their head out of it and do this right," Stephenson said, according to a video shared with The Salt Lake Tribune. "Most of the problems that are being faced here today are a result of some bureaucrats throwing their weight around in an inappropriate way."
Part of the challenge, Stephenson said, is that Utah law is unclear about what entity possesses the authority to exercise eminent domain on a charter school's behalf. He suggested the Utah Board of Education, as the only elected school board over charter schools, is the appropriate body to fill that role.
"Their district headquarters, as it were, is the state school board," Stephenson said. "I don't believe a local charter school governing board should be able to exercise the power of eminent domain."
But many neighbors describe years of frustration as the charter school attempts to resolve problems of its own making. And a primary point of contention is the daily traffic congestion that stems from families dropping off and picking up their students via American Preparatory Academy's single point of entry and exit from Lone Peak Parkway.
"I leave when all the kids are coming in," Ward said, "and sometimes it is impossible to get out of the neighborhood."
School administrators argue that the opening of a high school campus this fall will ease congestion by allowing staggered class schedules and additional parking. But neighbors worry the expected growth of several hundred students will only add to existing issues.
"Even with having two start times they're still going to have the same amount of cars," Ward said. "It's just going to be [spread] over a longer period of time."
Work on the new high school campus began before emergency access issues had been resolved, leading to occasional delays. The school purchased an adjacent house on its north side, and relied on its driveway to satisfy construction permit requirements.
School administrators had hoped the use of the residential property would be temporary, but announced to neighbors Thursday night that the full parcel would be razed and converted into an access point.
"Public officials have required us to construct an emergency access to the north, through your neighborhood," states a flyer distributed by American Preparatory Academy. "In spite of all our efforts, we have no options remaining and we must demolish the home."
Neighbor Leah Filley watched some of the demolition at 10:30 a.m. Friday. "The steps of the home were still there," she said. "But the structure was gone."
She also attributed the school's woes to poor planning, stemming from the purchase of a landlocked property. But she added that while neighbors are frustrated, a charter school is a preferable option to other businesses that might have built on the property.
"I'd rather have a school there than another stupid car dealership or call center," she said.
School representatives at the same April 5 community meeting where Stephenson spoke assured residents that the driveway replacing the house would be closed to school traffic and used only for emergency vehicles.
According to the video, Stephenson expressed hope the school's preferred route, through 11950 South, would ultimately be viable, either through negotiation with landowner John Price, through eminent domain, or other means.
"Just because you're a millionaire doesn't mean you can prevent a public school from having access," he said.
The property dispute is "untenable," Stephenson said, and must be corrected immediately. "If it's not fixed by Aug. 1," he said, "something is terribly wrong."
Stephenson, and American Preparatory Academy Chairman Brad Findlay, did not respond to requests for further comment.
Kathleen Riebe, a member of the Utah Board of Education who represents the Draper area said she an other board members are watching the situation closely.
"I feel really bad for that neighborhood," Riebe said. "I think that they have an unfortunate situation going on in their back yard."
On the question of eminent domain, she said the board has not taken any formal positions and that litigation between American Preparatory Academy and John Price is ongoing.
"I don't think the state school board was ever supposed to be the line in the sand," she said. "I think [APA] should have submitted a better plan at the beginning and I'm curious as to why it has gotten this far."