Creating an Effective Entitlements Process for Independent Schools

Creating an Effective Entitlements Process for Independent Schools

by Dwight Long, April 7, 2014

I recently led a workshop at the 2014 California Association of Independent Schools conference in San Francisco, geared toward helping expanding independent schools prepare for the entitlements process. In addition to the head of The Urban School, Mark Salkind, I was joined on the discussion panel by land-use attorney Harry O’Brien of Coblentz, Patch Duffy & Bass and neighborhood outreach consultant Jaime Rossi of Barbary Coast Consultants. The following is summary of that presentation.


Long before an independent school can realize its dream facility it will need to successfully negotiate the complex entitlements process, obtaining the approval of numerous state and local public agencies as well as community groups including individual neighbors, neighborhood associations and the occasional anti-development/anti-school activist.

In recent years, the entitlement process has gotten more complicated and I don’t see that trend changing. This is primarily because of increased public agency oversight, a not-in-my-backyard culture, and simply a growing desire for inclusion and openness within our communities: you need buy-in and support from your neighbors, community organizations, and a wide variety of land use agencies to get your project approved.

This process could very well make or break your project. You don’t just need a team of consultants; you need the right team and the right strategy. So before you select your team, start by assessing what you need to accomplish in this process.

Entitlements Planning

It always helps to have a plan and as architects, we are typically brought in when your school’s leadership determines through the strategic planning effort that there is a need for new facilities. We help school leaders create an achievable long-term vision for the campus and its structures based on your current and anticipated needs. This master planning effort looks closely at the development opportunities within your current, adjacent and near-by properties. It also identifies the individuals and entities you need to deal with for your vision to come to life.

This work informs the entitlement process, so planning for entitlements should also begin at this point. Ask yourself:

  • What are the challenges the project is facing?
  • From who/what entities will you need approval?
  • What strengths and opportunities could work to your advantage?
  • How much public outreach is enough?

Selecting the Team

With a clear sense of what you need to do and who you need support from, you’ll need to expand your team to include people who are deeply entrenched in the politics and policies that intertwine the entitlement process. Even if you have a communications director on staff, a consulting firm with experience in entitlements will anticipate common pitfalls and will have connections with key players to smooth things over. You will also need a land-use attorney to focus on the public agency approvals. Look for firms with deep experience with the policies that guide local land use and the public agencies that govern these. Your architect will be responsible for creating the documents and images that public agencies need, and presenting the design concepts to the community to help them understand the proposed project. As traffic, parking, drop-off and noise are common school issues, your school may also require support from additional consultants such as:

  • Traffic Consultant
  • Acoustical Engineer

Messaging is Key

Jamie Rossi, a partner at Barbary Coast Consulting, a San Francisco public and government affairs firm we’ve teamed with on multiple school entitlement projects, advises to put the message and messenger as top priority. The appropriate spokesperson is usually the head of the school. This person is adept at explaining the project and outlining the benefits for the school and the neighborhood. Ultimately, the questions and concerns expressed during this process should be addressed by a prominent figure within the school because the relationships that are tried and strengthened are theirs to mend or maintain. Before any discussions with the community are initiated, Barbary Coast insists that the entire team is committed to the master plan and well prepared to talk about the project knowledgeably—solid grasp on the key messages and talking points and authentic and non-defensive responses to the frequently asked questions.

Don’t forget that communication requires more than just words. The graphics depicting the completed project need to be considered carefully. Even without knowing all the parameters of the design, your designs need to convey a good picture without restricting the project. Think about:

  • How much of the design do you need to show to gain their support?
  • Should the designs be hand-drawn or computer rendered?
  • What graphics are needed for the planning documents?

Once your team is prepped and the graphics prepared, the public outreach begins. Rossi offers the following basic framework for reaching the three primary audiences:

  1. Community: Mobilize internal stakeholders to reach out to neighbors and community groups.
  2. Government: Develop a government relations plan, research the key players and establish lines of communication.
  3. Media: Make your key messages and images available to reporters and bloggers who cover your local, or industry-specific, news.

Many independent schools are nestled in neighborhoods. Whether your neighbors have children attending your school or not, they want to know—and have a right to know—your plans for expansion and new development. Getting to know your neighborhood and the groups and active voices within it is a wise investment to make now. Good relationships with your community are especially helpful to have before you are reliant on their support.

Planning Approvals

In California, the environmental reviews alone (the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA) touch on several issues like historic resources, transportation and circulation, noise, stormwater and more. Your land-use attorney will focus entirely on working with the public agencies, permitting requirements, and the planning commission for the necessary approvals. While public meetings are often required by the planning department, Harry O’Brien, a Partner at Coblentz, Patch, Duffy & Bass LLP, advises schools to get in front of any potential issues by delivering presentations to groups of neighbors and neighborhood associations well in advance of required submissions to the city planning department. He also warns against making agreements with neighbors prematurely.

Key Points of the Entitlements Process:

  • Be good neighbors now (this goes for your students’ parents, too!)
  • Develop the entitlements plan during your master planning process
  • Be committed to what you are proposing
  • Be prepared–get out in front of the Issues
  • Have the entitlements team in place before you go public
  • Know your neighbors and understand their issues
  • Develop responses to common community issues
  • Understand the political landscape
  • Work to keep local planning on your side
  • If possible, keep the community aware of your (managed) intentions
  • Be careful who you make agreements with

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