Upper Arlington News

Tree of Life resumes quest to open UA school


Five months after a federal judge threw out a Tree of Life Ministries' discrimination lawsuit against the city of Upper Arlington, the faith-based organization has brought a new proposal before city officials to allow it to open a local school.

Tree of Life is seeking to amend the city's zoning to permit "private religious schools" in a designated Office and Research District.

Council heard the first reading Monday, Feb. 25, of an ordinance that would authorize that change but did not vote on the proposal. A second reading of the legislation is slated for March 11.

A U.S. District Court last August dismissed Tree of Life's discrimination suit against the city.

In that case, Tree of Life argued it should be permitted to operate a school at the former America Online building at 5000 Arlington Centre Blvd. because its Christian-based instruction would make the school virtually indistinguishable from a church.

Although the property's zoning allowed churches under certain conditions, it prohibited schools. As such, the court ruled Tree of Life's discrimination claim couldn't be judged because the group didn't seek a rezoning for the property to allow schools there.

On Monday, Tree of Life representatives brought the new request before council, this time asking the city to allow religious schools in the ORC and to change the current designation of "place of worship, churches" from a conditional use to a permitted use in the ORC.

Todd Marrah, superintendent of Tree of Life Christian Schools, said his organization's request to amend the Office and Research District zoning and permitted uses met the city's standards for such changes because, among other things, the school wouldn't endanger public health or safety or decrease values of abutting properties.

Marrah also said plans for a school off Henderson Road serving students from preschool through 12th grade were in line with the sizes and densities of buildings currently in the ORC.

In addition, he said, the proposal generally conforms with the city's master plan and the property is appropriately located to receive city services.

Further, Marrah said the school would generate new city income tax revenue from its estimated 100 new jobs and $3 million annual payroll, but would not create traffic issues in the neighborhood because it has adequate on-site parking for buses, students and parents.

"Educating the next generation is such a use that is highest and best for the city," he said. " ... The school use would clearly provide a lesser impact that was felt when AOL was employing 1,200 (people) in two shifts."

Marrah said Tree of Life purchased the AOL building in 2010 for $6.5 million and wishes to operate a school in Upper Arlington. He added there currently are no other approximately 16-acre sites in the city to accommodate the organization's plans.

Council moved the request to its March 11 agenda without discussion Monday.

The city's public information office did not respond to an inquiry for information from ThisWeek Upper Arlington News about Tree of Life's proposal, and Upper Arlington City Attorney Jeanine Amid Hummer said she wouldn't discuss the request.

"I really don't want to comment on what (Tree of Life is) asking for," Hummer said.

Instead, Hummer referred to a city staff report to council on the proposed legislation.

In that document, Upper Arlington Senior Planning Officer Planner Chad Gibson stated the city's commercial land base is 4.7 percent of the city's total land area, and the UA master plan gives "clear direction that the replacement of extremely limited office space with school, church or other non-commercial uses is not desirable."

Gibson's report also noted that ORC properties generally are located in the city's extreme northwest corner and, although schools are permitted in eight other zoning districts -- including all residential districts -- they are not allowed in any of the city's commercial districts.

"Staff believes that the proposed code text amendments are in direct opposition to a number of core master plan goals and objectives," Gibson stated in the report. "The proposed text amendments would add two non-office or research uses as permitted uses in the ORC District, which will likely reduce the amount of office and research space within the city over time ...

"Allowing such uses by right within the city's extremely limited commercial areas is simply not necessary or beneficial to the city, and it is likely that negative long-term economic consequences will result."

Tree of Life's 254,000-square-foot property includes seven buildings and is the largest office space in the city.