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Judge clears way for Montessori school in town of Troy

A judge determined the St. Croix County Board of Adjustment acted properly in approving a special exception permit to allow Heartland Montessori to open a pre-school in the town of Troy.

Decisions regarding the use of the single-family house at 436 Red Brick Road now lie with Heartland's board of directors, said Cheryl Johnson, Heartland's head of school, Tuesday.

"Those conversations are still taking place," she said.

Heartland, which bought the house last year, has rented it out in an attempt to recoup some of the expenses, said Johnson. The school closed it campus on Rodeo Circle in Hudson and now operates only one school in River Falls.

In his order filed Aug. 19, Judge Edward Vlack affirmed the BOA's decision to permit the school. The proposal had been to accommodate up to 25 students plus 15 children in a Discovery program. In issuing the permit, the board set 15 conditions that must be met.

Vlack's decision is in response to a complaint filed July 2008 by 23 neighbors who oppose locating the school in the rural residential area. They argued the Board of Adjustment hadn't properly considered the increased traffic, impact on home values, plans for expansion and nuisance from noise. Opponents also argued that schools shouldn't be allowed in agricultural/ residential zones.

"Schools are expressly permitted in a strictly residential zone, so it is reasonable to conclude that a school may be one of those mixed uses that arise when an agricultural area becomes more residential," wrote Vlack

After reviewing reports of hearings held in April and June 2008, he found there was ample evidence of the BOA's deliberations and reasoning with regard to traffic and the impact of more vehicles in the area.

"Petitioners' desire to see more reasoning than this is not required by law," wrote Vlack. "It is not required for the board to give a reason for every opinion they formed during the hearing.

"All the law requires is that the board provides reasoning to support its ultimate finding as to the factors set out in the ordinance, and only that reasoning which is sufficient to meet the requirements of due process."

Vlack also determined it isn't beyond the bounds of reasonableness to find that the permit wouldn't substantially hurt property values.

The neighbors complained that BOA Chairman Clarence "Buck" Malick refused to recuse himself despite a complaint that he had made up his mind before listening to arguments at the hearings.

The judge implied that opponents had misread Malick's intentions when he declined to give up his vote on the issue.

Vlack wrote, "...the evidence shows that Chairman Malick was not prejudicially interested in reaching a 3:2 vote in favor of approving the permit, but that he monitored board members' positions on various aspects in order to reach a majority decision in either direction by the end."

That motivation was reasonable, wrote the judge, especially because one reason for reconsidering the issue was the Troy Town Board's concern that there wasn't a majority vote the first time.

Vlack said Malick twice asked why he was being asked to give up his vote and received only vague responses. The person asking for the recusal said only that people had overhead Malick saying Montessori is a good thing.

Here is a brief outline of the events that led to the court case:

In April 2008 the Planning and Zoning Department recommended approval of the Heartland permit with certain conditions. That month the Board of Adjustment approved a special exception permit with 15 conditions.

The conditions required Heartland to limit access to one driveway from either Coulee Trail or Red Brick Road, to install a fenced playground with a 10-foot buffer and evergreen screening, to remove certain structures, to limit enrollment to 35 and to limit classroom hours to 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays with six special events a year.

In May the Troy Town Board asked the BOA to reconsider its decision. The Town Board maintained the BOA had erred in determining that the proposed school is an allowed use in the ag-residential zoning, didn't accurately consider traffic volume and took a vote when two BOA members were absent, therefore approving the permit without a majority vote.

Neighbors also asked the board to consider increased traffic, impact on home values, plans for expansion and nuisance from noise.

The BOA held a second public hearing June 26, 2008. Before the vote, Malick was asked to recuse himself based on the allegation that he had already made up his mind. He refused, saying that recusing himself would result in a tie vote.

The board voted to reaffirm its decision to approve the permit on a 3-2 vote but changed four of the conditions.

The changes require Heartland to install a new sanitary system before opening the school, strongly recommend access from Coulee Tail, remove the requirement that Heartland designate a grass overflow parking area and reduce the number of special events allowed to five a year.