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A Utah charter school group is asking the state charter school board to settle a longstanding property dispute through eminent domain.
The board is scheduled to discuss Friday whether to intervene in the conflict over road access on behalf of Utah Charter Academies, which oversees the American Preparatory Academy network of charter schools.
At issue is a narrow strip of land in Draper that runs along the south side of an American Preparatory Academy parcel and renders it functionally landlocked, without access to a road between the school property and an industrial park.
Charter board spokeswoman Jennifer Lambert said Utah Charter Academies has "requested some assistance in getting access to one of their schools."
The request sets the stage for an unprecedented and controversial action by the unelected advisory panel to the Utah Board of Education. While Utah law grants to boards of education the power to claim property for public use through eminent domain, it remains unclear and as yet untested in court whether that power extends to the state charter school board.
"It would probably be in [the form of] a lawsuit where they become a plaintiff," Lambert said, describing possible action by charter board members. "They would take first position in trying to exercise eminent domain."
The American Preparatory Academy in Draper has been able to operate by negotiating an easement with its neighbor to the east, Forrest Corporation, to install an access drive to reach Lone Peak Parkway.
But the school has long hoped to create a south entrance by paving through the land strip, owned by commercial developer and former U.S. Ambassador John Price through his company Price Logistics Center Draper, or PLCD.
"PLCD never has granted and is not willing to grant temporary construction access or any other kind of access to APA through the Lone Peak Business Park," PLCD's attorney David Castleton wrote in a March 16 letter to the Utah Board of Education.
Castleton said Thursday that PLCD is concerned about mixing school and industrial traffic. And after years of litigation, he said Utah Charter Academies has shown a track record of changing its plans and pressuring third parties to fix its problems.
"For some reason, they want to come over to our property and mix school kids and great big tractors trailers, which scares us," Castleton said. "It's a complicated issue. They want to make it sound really simple and get everybody feeling sorry for them."
The impasse has frustrated efforts by Utah Charter Academies to build a high school adjacent to its existing campus, and has generated significant traffic congestion on Lone Peak Parkway, with students being dropped off and picked up through the single entrance each day.
The situation has forced the school to encourage carpooling among parents and led to a staggered schedule to minimize the clustering of vehicles.
In 2015, Utah Charter Academies attempted to exercise eminent domain as the governing board of a charter school. That attempt failed, however, with 3rd District Court Judge Su Chon ruling that the non-profit corporation does not qualify as a "board of education" and lacks the statutory right to claim property for public use.
The court ruling led Utah Charter Academies to first ask the state charter school board for help in late 2015. And while the board issued resolutions in support of the school, it has so far declined to attempt an eminent domain action in the matter.
"We had been waiting [since 2015] for an opinion from the [Attorney General's] office as to what we could do," Lambert said. "We have not yet heard back. However, the school is at the point where they need a decision."
Daniel Burton, spokesman for Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, declined to comment on whether Utah's eminent domain law extends to the state charter school board.
"Any information or advice that we provide to the school board is attorney-client privileged and it will be up to them how to utilize," Burton said.
The issue is pressing, Lambert said, because the long-delayed high school campus is nearing its construction phase and scheduled to open this fall. That means more students and, by extension, more of a strain on the property's single point of egress and ingress.
Utah Charter Academies was able to obtain construction permits by spending roughly $300,000 on a house to the north of the school site and converting its driveway into an emergency access point.
If the property dispute is not resolved by fall, Lambert said, the school might be compelled to spill its drop-off traffic into the dense residential subdivision around Draper's Inauguration Park and possibly demolish the house to create a wider thruway.
"If they do not get an answer very soon they're going to have to tear down that house," Lambert said. "They don't want to have to do that, because that's not what the community wants."
Utah Charter Academies chairman Brad Findlay said Thursday he had been advised by legal counsel not to comment prior to Friday's charter board meeting.
"We are happy the [state charter school board] has at least put this issue on their agenda," Findlay said, "and so we are hoping for a positive outcome."