School Is in Session: How to Open Your Charter School on Time and Under Budget
Charter school design and construction presents unique planning and entitlement challenges due to varying regulations across jurisdictions. Planning standards and zoning requirements, queuing and site layout challenges, and traffic implications must all be taken into consideration, whether your development consists of a new ground-up design or an interior renovation.
With more than 50 years in the civil engineering consulting industry and extensive experience with public, private, and charter school developments, our national education specialists understand the challenges associated with the development of an educational facility. We’ve developed the questions below as a guide to help you set your project up for success, hit the ground running, avoid added costs, and set (and meet) your targeted opening date.
Charter School Design Considerations
- What is the applicable zoning of the charter school site?
One of the first items to consider is the zoning classification of the site. Most jurisdictions have a zoning ordinance that defines the allowable uses of any given site. Educational institutions are generally allowed in most zoning classifications—either outright or through the approval of a conditional or special use permit. Identifying zoning classifications that offer the least resistance helps the overall timeline by removing the need for an extended zoning change or special request process that could encounter delay-causing pushback from the local jurisdiction.
- Is the charter school site already platted?
A plat is a legal document that helps define the property, addresses potential restrictions that could limit development, shows any encumbrances on the land—such as building and parking setbacks or utility easements—and establishes the legal lot. If a site is not already platted, the platting process can result in additional restrictions on the land or the potential loss of land for future infrastructure improvements. If you can find a site that has been platted and has favorable site conditions, this step can be avoided to help save time. However, if the site is not platted, or is platted but has some unfavorable encumbrances, restrictions can possibly be lifted or negotiated to allow for a more favorable development.
- Are there limiting site plan requirements that could impact development?
Floor area ratio, parking requirements, property line setbacks, landscape requirements, adjacency limitations, height restrictions, and fire lane requirements are just a few items that can have a major impact on the developable area of a site and limit where buildings and other improvements can go. Take the time to draft a conceptual site plan to address as many of these items as you can as early as possible. Most jurisdictions have a process to allow for variances to the codes, but many don’t allow them. If you can secure a pre-development meeting with the agency staff, review the conceptual plan with them before you spend money on construction plans for a site that will ultimately not be developable. Engage with the city planners, engineers, and building and fire code reviewers early to make sure you are addressing all the requirements.
- What are the traffic implications that may arise?
Schools generate traffic. Between the constant flow of early morning drop-offs during rush hour and early afternoon queuing, jurisdictions are always concerned about the safety of the traffic entering and leaving the site. It’s important to ensure that the impacts do not overwhelm the surrounding roadway network. A traffic impact analysis and a traffic management plan are typically required and provide recommendations on how to mitigate the impact a new school may have on traffic flow/circulation. If off-site roadway infrastructure improvements are needed, address this early in the process as it will allow for the most flexibility in locations of driveways and routing of traffic through the site. You will also be able to better coordinate with the jurisdiction about the needs of the site and public streets.
- Are there any challenges with stormwater detention or floodplain?
Stormwater runoff must be mitigated, and this usually must occur on site. When detention is required, depending on how it is accounted for on the site, it can eat into the developable area of the land. If it is in an open-air pond, you may see up to a 30% reduction in developable area depending on site constraints and the available depth of outfall. If that is too much land to lose, you can consider underground storage, but there are added cost implications which may push the project over budget. A dual-purpose use, like placing practice fields in the bottom of a pond or using rainwater cisterns to capture roof runoff for landscaping, could help creatively mitigate the issue. Each site’s stormwater runoff challenges require a unique solution.
Additionally, there may floodplain impacts on the site as established by FEMA. Depending on the classification, you may be required to elevate the building or take other measures to ensure the development is floodproof. Not only can this have upfront cost implications, but it could also mean long-term added costs for flood insurance.
- Are there any ancillary fees associated with the charter school development?
No one likes surprises when it comes to fees. While some items, such as plan review fees may be smaller, costs to the overall budget, impact fees, and permit fees, are typically fairly substantial. Try to determine these early and plan for them in the budget. Jurisdictions may have impact fees for water, sanitary, storm, and traffic, among other items, depending on the impacts your development will cause to their infrastructure. Consult with your design team to be aware of potential fees while preparing your budget.
- What are the pros and cons of a ground-up development versus a building renovation?
While a ground-up allows you to develop a site and building that may best suit your needs, it will generally have a longer design and construction timeframe. A building renovation on the other hand could allow for a shorter design and construction timeframe but may pose limitations based on the previous use of the building and the developed site. This could ultimately impact operations and classroom configuration. The age of the existing building could also add additional costs associated with structural rehabilitation and abatement.
- How long does it take to design and construct a charter school?
This is probably the most important question. Establish your target open date and work backwards to determine what style of project to pursue based on the ideal timeframe. Depending on the size and scope of a ground-up project, design, permitting, and construction can take anywhere from 15 to 24 months, sometimes more, given the challenges of the site. Renovation projects can take as little as 6 months to more than 12 months. Every jurisdiction poses its own challenges. Engage with an architect, engineer, and contractor to help develop a project-specific timeline and look for efficiencies, like early release construction packages, design items that can run concurrently, and potential permit expediting services.
- How should charter schools plan for additional development?
You can never start planning early enough. It is hard to determine when growth may occur or what the circumstances may be when it does happen, but it is important to account for growth and plan where you can. If possible, allow for future parking and site queuing additions, factor future student growth into early design studies if you are not at the planned maximum student capacity, and size wet and dry utilities for potential building expansions. Taking these steps early in the planning process will make it easier to accommodate future growth and cause less impact to site operations, while saving you time and money in the long run.
Choose the Right Charter School Design Team to Open Your Doors on Schedule
While every project is unique, understanding the above considerations will help you plan for unforeseeable site constraints early in the development process. Kimley-Horn’s experts understand the charter school campus environment and common site constraints, student calendar cycles, and funding mechanisms. Our local experience and relationships, combined with our understanding of agency dynamics, will help your charter school open on schedule and within budget.
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