Editorial: Making peace in a turf war

In these stressful times, when international rancor and local partisanship seem to make honestly negotiated compromise an endangered species, it is both rare and refreshing to be able to point to the successful resolution of a small-scale but heated conflict here in the Bay Area.

The encouraging outcome of a long-running feud between residents of the McDougal Park neighborhood of Belmont and the private Charles Armstrong School for dyslexic students provides a hopeful example for other Bay Area disputes.

By January 2006, so many neighborhood complaints about nuisance violations had been filed against the Charles Armstrong School that the city Planning Commission announced it would explore revoking the school’s conditional use permit, which could have effectively shut it down.

Fortunately, the specialized 245-pupil elementary school already was acting on a wake-up call following a stormy series of contentious hearings that resulted in Belmont rejecting their proposal to build a new 16,000-square-foot gymnasium.

The school contracted with professional facilitator Candace Hathaway to find out why the neighbors had such intensely bad feelings against them. Hathaway held focus groups and determined that the residents believed they had been unheard and disrespected for years, and that their quality of life was harmed by increased traffic, noise, night lighting and limited access to the public park.

Her analysis was that the school community focused so intently on helping its students overcome the crippling effects of learning disabilities that it simply did not notice how its activities were negatively impacting a quiet, pastoral neighborhood.

This set off six months of meetings at which each side truly listened to opposition viewpoints for the first time. A working committee of school administrators, active residents from the Neighborhoods First homeowner group and Belmont Planning Department representatives negotiated the parameters of a “green screen” of trees, shrubs and ground cover to shield homes on the 1400 block of Solana Drive. The project is now going out for bids.

Meanwhile, in April, the Planning Department canceled the permit-revocation process because the school’s new Violation Compliance Committee had started effective remedies for virtually every permit violation on a six-page laundry list.

All parties to the dispute now agree that tremendous progress has been made, although there remains some neighborhood wariness about whether the current reforms will hold throughout the upcoming busier academic seasons.

The key to neutralizing the previously intensive tensions between the McDougal Park residents and the Charles Armstrong School appears to have been a new willingness by both sides to consider the other side’s viewpoints, to look honestly at the parameters of the problem and re-establish trust by making positive changes.

This would be a valuable lesson for so many other Bay Area turf warriors to learn in their confrontations.

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