P&Z Watch: More Traffic Data Requested for Greenwich Academy Busing Program

On Tuesday Greenwich Academy returned to the Planning & Zoning commission with their application to raise their enrollment cap by 50 students for a new total of 780 students at their 200 North Maple Ave campus.

The current cap of 730 (plus or minus 2%) students was set in 2000.

Attorney Chip Haslun said the school had successfully implemented a new busing program, reducing the number of trips to school.

The idea was to reduce traffic in the residential neighborhood with an eye to sustainability.

The word sustainability came up multiple times.

“Since the early 1990s traffic has been the issue whenever Greenwich Academy has tried to do something in this neighborhood. It’s always traffic, traffic, traffic,” Haslun said. “We get it. It’s a highly congested area.”

Haslun said traffic consultant Kimley-Horn had done counts of bus ridership on Oct 19 and 24, and the school had done daily counts of ridership for 7 weeks in Sept and Oct.

Margaret Hazlett, the new head of the all-girls private school, said there had been strong demand for the bus service, and that if the enrollment cap were raised it would work toward achieving gender parity in the upper school where classrooms were shared with boys from Brunswick School.

Hazlett said an enrollment increase would not happen all once, but rather 10-15 students each year for 3-5 years.

“We recognize the challenges of the surrounding area, and our understanding of the concerns of our neighbors, and are committed to resolving and helping out as we’ve been doing this year related to the traffic issue,” Hazlett said. “And we want to do it in a sustainable way.”

School CFO Andrea Sabitsana the school had gone from 3 to 10 buses, adding many new routes from the Greenwich area, where 65% of their students reside.

Now the school includes the cost of the bus service in tuition, whereas in the past the service was charged out as an added service.

“We focused on very convenient routes, with shortened time frames and reasonable pick up times, with no more than one to three stops each to make it convenient to families,” Sabitsana said. “It is consistent with our overall goal of increasing our focus on sustainability.”

Ms Sabitsana said bus registrations had increased from 68 to 186 students, and ridership in the busiest morning hour increased from about 30 to 110.

She said if the enrollment cap relief was granted, the school would continue to promote the bus program and review routes annually.

Commissioner Nick Macri questioned the data which he noted showed a decrease in the use of the bus ridership in the afternoon compared to morning.

The applicant explained that the afternoon decrease reflected participation in after school sports and a late bus was provided.

“The traffic issues in and around the site can be controlled by an enrollment cap,” Macri said. “The precedent in my eye has been set 23 years ago, that the cap was set (by the Zoning Board of Appeals) for a reason.”

“I think the study bears out there is a lot less traffic in the area in the afternoon peak period than the morning peak period,” Haslun explained.  “That’s different from what you see at Greenwich High School where (traffic exits) to the Post Road, which is pretty much a steady traffic flow even in the mid-afternoon.”

Commissioner Mary Jenkins said even in 2000, when the first cap was discussed, there was an “assured increase in bus transportation.”

“You have 186 people signed up, which is wonderful,” Jenkins said. “But it’s only 60% of the people who are enrolled actually using the bus, even in the morning where you appear to have a better result.”

Commissioner Peter Levy said the applicant was “putting the cart before the horse.”

“I would like to feel this ‘sustainability’ word they keep using really means something to them …These issues are quality of life for these neighbors,” he continued. “I’m very concerned that it has not improved over time, and is going to get worse.”

John Canning, from Kimley-Horn, said the school had ameliorated queuing at the upper school which had spilled onto North Maple Ave, forcing drivers to drive down the wrong side of the road.

He said the solution had been to move two grades to the lower school.

“We’ve reduced traffic volume at the school by 60 vehicles,” he said. “The school had originally contemplated asking this board to increase its enrollment by 100 students, but they’re good stewards, so they’re asking for a 50 student enrollment (increase).”

He said with the increase of 5o the traffic would be “no worse.”

Commissioner Dennis Yeskey asked if the school had considered mandating that all students ride the bus.

Mr. Canning replied that families would simply not send their children to the school if busing was mandated.

“We’ve been giving the same message to every school – public and private,” Alban said, adding that the commission had many conversations with GCDS about their traffic, especially when they opened their high school.

“We want busing. We want carpooling. We want vans. We want to ease the traffic situation,” she said.

“All I see is a willingness to press on and say, ‘A little bit more won’t hurt,'” said commissioner Peter Levy.

Commissioner Peter Lowe agreed.

“Shouldn’t we be trying for an appreciably greater reduction in congestion? I’m not sure maintaining the status quo is a sufficient goal.”

Ms Alban summarized commission feedback.

“What I’m hearing is you haven’t been doing this long enough and you don’t have enough results,” she said. “I was a little concerned you exceeded the 2% on your enrollment cap – I don’t know how you solve that.”

“If you continue this program and continue to  incentivize, if you get better results and come back to us I would suggest you do that,” she added.

Mr. Canning asked, “How long is long enough? How long would it take the board to be convinced that this is working? Is it months? Is it years?”

Ms Alban said the commission wanted the busing to become institutionalized as the “base practice.”

Mr. Levy said, “If their idea is to increase their enrollment, that doesn’t sound like a scenario that is sustainable,” he said. “They have to show real gains in reducing the traffic.”

During public comment, Karen Fassuliotis described the application as the definition of either insanity or groundhog day.

She said she lived on the route many parents use to drive their children to the school.

“I can’t walk my dogs between 7:00-8:30am and again from 2:30 to 4:00pm, due to the caravan of cars, many of them speeding through without regard for pedestrians.”

Nicole Roberts of 10 North Street said she supported the school’s application because she wanted more girls to benefit from the school experience and that the students enjoyed riding the bus.

Roberts said she had stood outside the previous two mornings during rush hour and the only congested period was 7:30 to 7:45am.

Other than that brief 15 minutes traffic did not have an impact on her life including her ability to exit her driveway.

Patrick Klosterman of 183 North Maple Ave said the increased morning congestion was driven by increased local commutation.

He described his driveway on North Maple as most among those most impacted, and that the only nuisance time was from 7:30 to 7:50am.

He said morning traffic on North Maple had improved since the school implemented the busing program.

“Last year northbound traffic on North Maple would sometimes stand still at my driveway. I have not experienced this problem this year,” he said.

Mr. Klosterman noted that private school families fund the public school system because they pay property taxes but do not use public schools. He suggested the school prioritize Greenwich students for the proposed 50 new students.

Leslie Tarkington of 76 Hillside Drive said the requested enrollment increase and traffic would further impact neighborhood quality of life, draining, flooding and sewer capacity.

She said contiguous neighbors had been noticed, but the West Brother Brook watershed residents were not noticed despite being impacted by the school’s traffic.

She said a replacement of the bridge at North Street by Cotswood, where West Brother Brook crosses North Street, was imminent and would impact school traffic and the entire neighborhood.

“Traffic alternative routes will be catastrophic, even without increasing Greenwich Academy’s enrollment,” she said. “The North Street bridge has been shored up with an emergency piling replacement, as the  bridge piling was moved 7 feet by the water force of the 2021 Ida Storm.”

Tarkington said DPW planned to limit North Street to a single lane for two years using a traffic light system, and divert traffic to alternative routes.

“The North Street-mid country area will be at a standstill at traffic congested periods.”

Cheryl Saban from Jofran Lane across North Maple from Greenwich Academy said she had not noticed any improvement in traffic since the busing program was implemented, and agreed the data was insufficient.

She said there were other neighbors who agreed but were reluctant to speak out.

Three letters were read into the record including from Nicole and Dan Negrea of 3 North Street who oppose the enrollment increase, citing traffic and the sound of car tires, engines, brakes, honking.

“Traffic police are needed to keep the traffic moving. Despite this there is still backup. There is also a very long line of cars along Patterson Ave during the same times. The same goes for Maple Ave. It is challenging for a pedestrian to safely cross the street during these times – even using the crosswalks.”

Mrs. Negrea said she had difficulty exiting her driveway onto North Street during busy times because of traffic backups.

A letter from Marcus Tarkington said since 2000 he had been asking for a traffic management plan at the school and increased busing.

He asked for conditions of the 200 approval to be put in the record.

He said there was no assurance the busing initiative would continue and noted the school was already in violation of its enrollment cap.

Mr. Tarkington’s letter said it was disingenuous for the school to apply for the cap increase.

At the end of the discussion the item was kept open and the applicant granted a full extension.

Attorney Haslun said the school would continue to pursue improvements.

Also from the Dec 12 P&Z meeting:

Neighbors Weigh in on Proposed Residential Development at Former Honda Site

P&Z Watch: Parking Expansion Approved at Former Stop & Shop