Tree of Life Ministries' hopes of opening a school in an Upper Arlington office district once again remain in the hands of the courts after city officials rejected the proposal.
Upper Arlington City Council voted unanimously Monday, March 11, to oppose Tree of Life's request to amend city zoning regulations to permit "private religious schools" in a designated Office and Research District.
For now, it appears Tree of Life's only recourse is a pending appeal of its discrimination lawsuit, which was dismissed last August by a U.S. District Court.
"It was no surprise," Tree of Life Christian Schools Superintendent Todd Marrah said of council's action Monday. "We knew how this was going to go.
"We still look forward to being in Upper Arlington and we still look forward to the court's decision."
Tree of Life had sought a zoning amendment to permit it to operate a school at the former America Online building at 5000 Arlington Centre Blvd., which is located within an Office and Research District.
Organization representatives asked 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.
Last month, Marrah appealed to council by arguing that Tree of Life's request to amend the ORC zoning and permitted uses met Upper Arlington's standards for such changes because, among other things, the school would not endanger public health or safety or decrease the 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, the proposal generally conformed to the city's master plan and the property is appropriately located to receive city services.
Further, he 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.
On Monday, Upper Arlington Senior Planning Officer Chad Gibson took the uncommon step of submitting the entire staff report related to Tree of Life's request into the public record. He then went on to outline seven standards for amending the ORC zoning, which he said Tree of Life failed to meet.
Among them, Gibson said a school would "intrude on the primary office use contemplated in the ORC by significantly adding traffic and noise to the district through transportation of students," and that granting Tree of Life's request would affect allowed uses throughout the 67 acres of the city's designated ORCs, which he said make up approximately 1 percent of Upper Arlington's total land.
Further, Gibson said, Tree of Life's request could negatively affect the city's ability to generate commercial tax revenues. It also presents First Amendment concerns, he said.
"The use of office space in the ORC zoning for schools would significantly diminish expected tax revenues per square foot due to the relatively low salaries and low density of professionals per square foot," Gibson said. "This is of particular concern in Upper Arlington, where a vast proportion of the city is currently zoned residential -- where churches and schools are permitted.
" ... Tree of Life's proposal to include religious schools in the ORC zoning district but to exclude secular schools may expose the city to liability for violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution."
Aside from council President Don Leach, who recused himself from voting on the request because he previously represented clients opposed to Tree of Life's proposal as a private-sector attorney, each council member sided with Gibson.
"The one thing that truly sticks with me is the fiscal concerns," Councilman Erik Yassenoff said.
Councilman John Adams and Councilwoman Deborah Johnson said given that Upper Arlington has more than 95 percent of its total land zoned for residential uses, the city needs to maximize its use of land zoned for commercial purposes.
"We have very, very few areas of the city designated this way," Adams said. "We have very good reasons for that."
Johnson added, "Tree of Life's request to treat religious schools differently than secular schools really seems to be (contrary) to the First Amendment."