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Published February 21, 2014 10:00 am

Zoning exemptions a bad idea
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Rep. Rich Cunningham may be right that the original sponsors of a law allowing charter schools to be built just about anywhere were more interested in furthering their own interests than in helping schoolchildren.

And Cunningham might or might not have some ulterior motive of his own in helping a developer with property next to a charter school who is battling with the school's directors over access and property rights.

But, regardless of its origin, the 2005 law favoring charter-school development was misguided from the start, and Cunningham is right to want to repeal it.

The law was proposed by former Reps. Mike Morley and James Ferrin and former Sen. Sheldon Kilpack, who had financial interests in charter-school construction. It was overwhelmingly approved by both House and Senate and signed by the governor.

It exempts charter schools from most zoning and building ordinances and codes and allows them to be constructed in any municipal zone: residential, commercial or industrial. They are exempt from inspections by city inspectors. Schools have been built in areas where similar projects would not have been allowed and that aren't the best places for children.

Cunningham cites examples of schools built too close to canals, a sewage-treatment plant and commercial developments and in heavy traffic areas. He also admits his legislation was prompted by conflicts between developer John Price and charter school American Preparatory Academy in Draper.

But that particular case should not be the focus of legislators considering Cunningham's bill. The 2005 law was passed when charter schools were believed by conservative legislators to be the answer to education reform and parental choice. Since then, many of the charters have experienced financial deficiencies and misbehavior by some organizers.

The fact is that charter-school students are not surpassing their traditional public school peers on standardized tests as legislators had envisioned.

The Utah League of Cities and Towns reports that, while charter schools are exempt from zoning restrictions, traditional schools do have to comply in many Utah cities, although not all. Cities create zones in order to plan and coordinate growth. It's counterproductive for charter schools, with their parking and traffic needs and safety concerns, to appear just about anywhere and also to avoid inspection by city officials for construction and safety regulations.