“We Got A Lot Of Pressure To Approve This Charter School Project”

The title of this blog post was what a staff member of the DC department of energy and environment (DOEE) wrote to a fellow staff member in an email about a storm water management system at Eagle Academy’s property at 2345 R St. SE.

That email was part of a FOIA production I received around the storm water management system at the school, which has failed repeatedly. Read on for how that FOIA production (as well as FOIA productions from other agencies and those produced for others) appear to outline DC’s poor oversight of this charter school development and pressure on DOEE to move ahead with it–while raising questions around the inaction of elected and appointed officials in the wake of public damage.

To Protect The Environment—Or Not

When Eagle purchased the 1 acre property in 2016, it contained several houses that had been used for a private school. Behind those structures, the site sloped steeply down to the narrow street behind it, Ridge Place. Over the decades, trees along the back, south-facing slope had grown thick and tall. A neighbor described it looking like a forest.

In 2017, Eagle Academy had a design for a newly built school there. The main entrance was to be on the north side of the property, on R Street, while a large parking lot was to be located on the back of the property, on its southwestern end, accessed by a curb cut on Ridge Place.

Because the construction by Eagle Academy was considered a “major land-disturbing activity” by DOEE, Eagle was required to put in a storm water management system. The idea was to limit erosion, ponding, and flooding–while also ensuring environmental reviews to preserve large trees where possible and prevent damage to adjacent structures.

To understand better Eagle’s development of this property, I had requested via FOIA information from a variety of DC agencies. The DOEE FOIA production I received (which was mainly around the storm water management system and linked repeatedly below in two, very large, files) was unusual inasmuch as it contained hundreds of un-redacted emails, with all FOIA fees waived by DOEE. By contrast, FOIA productions I received from other DC agencies regarding Eagle’s development of this property had few, if any, emails–despite my request for them. In fact, DCRA told me that I would have to pay more than $2000 to have that agency’s responsive emails. (I didn’t pay—and received only a few responsive (mostly unenlightening) emails from DCRA, despite DCRA’s central role in the unpermitted construction of the building there.)

In any case, the DOEE FOIA production made clear that a variety of DC agencies (second FOIA, p. 576ff) sent approval letters to DCRA for Eagle’s plans for managing its environment, including the office of planning (6/13/17); DC water (6/5/17); Department of Public Works (5/23/17); and Department of Transportation (7/14/17).

DOEE’s own environmental assessment (5/25/17) was completely in support, without outlining any negative issues.

DCRA itself sent an approval letter to Eagle on 7/17/17, noting that “the proposed action is not likely to have substantial negative impact on the environment” (second FOIA, p. 576).

But what was never produced for me via FOIA from any agency was this document from 1996, from the office of planning, that noted that any curb cuts along Ridge, on the south side of the property, would result in harm to adjacent properties because of the steep slope of the site.

Nor did any of the documents produced for me even allude to that 1996 document (which was produced in response to someone else’s FOIA request).

Starting in July 2017, DOEE’s James Dunbar raised many questions about Eagle’s plans in environmental review reports (second FOIA, p. 494 ff).

For instance, in a 9/19/17 report, Dunbar questioned the project’s tree preservation, noting a 39-inch tree and a 40-inch tree that he said were “very unlikely” to “survive the work being done” (second FOIA, p. 508).

Then, on 10/12/17, Dunbar mentioned his concerns about a 39-inch tree and a proposed wall (first FOIA, p. 41-2).

Still, Dunbar signaled the next day (10/13/17) that he was going to approve Eagle’s environmental plans (first FOIA, p. 122). By that time, the office of the attorney general had promulgated a storm water covenant, which Eagle signed on 10/6/17 (second FOIA, p. 438).

It’s unclear how successful any tree preservation at the site was going to be. For instance, the 2017 plans for the school produced via FOIA (second FOIA, p. 538ff) don’t appear to show any possibility of saving trees. Materials I received from DCRA via FOIA included a 9/22/17 permit to remove 8 trees in various states of health, some of which were characterized as “heritage” trees and were sizable. Because a 39-inch tree can be several hundred years old, large trees inherently encompass both historic as well as environmental value. The materials I received, and what the property looks like now, suggest that most of the trees did not survive the development.

Less than a week after DOEE approved Eagle’s 2017 environmental plans, the agency gave Eagle a notice of infraction on 10/19/17 for razing at least one of the buildings on the property without a preconstruction meeting with DOEE. The result was dust, sediments, and accumulating debris (second FOIA, p. 68).

The razing apparently came out of a permit that Eagle applied for on 4/21/17 and was approved for on 10/17/17 (raze permit R1700133), for tearing down one of the existing houses on the property.

About the same time, on 10/18/17, DCRA approved plans for a structure, about 17,000 square feet, with an undulating roofline and granted a permit for foundation work (FD170098). That permit said it was not for anything above grade.

Changes Of Plans—And Disconnections

The first pressure on DC officials that I found in the DOEE FOIA production came the month before DOEE approved Eagle’s environmental plans, when on 9/15/17 someone from VIKA (a firm Eagle apparently hired to create the storm water management system) sent an email to DOEE’s Dunbar, saying that the school “must be completed by next August [i.e., August 2018] for the start of the school year. Construction of the building is scheduled to start on October 8” (second FOIA, p. 741).

That same employee said weeks later, in October 2017, that Eagle would start construction within 2 weeks (first FOIA, p. 32).

But something not long after that changed—which may explain why the property stood untouched thereafter for about a year.

On 4/27/18, Eagle applied with DCRA for 5 test bores, with extensive soil testing in May and June 2018.

On 7/5/18, Eagle applied with DCRA for a permit, which was granted on 10/3/18. That permit, B1811241, “reflects change in building footprint and foundation change” and alluded to it being a change to the prior permit FD170098 (which was granted on 10/18/17 for foundation work only).

On 10/4/18 (notably, the day after permit B1811241 was issued), DCRA approved extensive drawings of the current building on the site, a 23,000 square feet structure.

DCRA also provided to me via FOIA a June 2018 analysis of soils on the property—done presumably to accommodate the new (2018) design. The analysis warned against building on the southwest portion of the site without remediation (recall that was where the first (2017) design had a large parking lot). Like that 2017 design, the new (2018) design also outlined a parking lot on the back (south) side of the property, with a curb cut on Ridge–albeit not on the southwestern side of the property.

Though I was unable to find anything in the materials I received to indicate what exactly happened between fall 2017 and spring 2018 that changed Eagle’s plans, on 10/12/18 a “preconstruction” erosion and sediment control report was filed by DOEE inspector Khalil Wood, who noted that the (new, 2018, erosion and sediment) plan appeared sufficient for the site (second FOIA, p. 699).

The DOEE FOIA production, however, doesn’t appear to show anyone at DOEE having signed off on Eagle’s 2018 storm water management plan.

On 12/9/18, the status of this project with DOEE was “under review” on a list of Dunbar’s projects from 12/9/18 (second FOIA, p. 821). It is unclear whether DOEE was aware that construction was proceeding on something that DOEE had not apparently approved—or maybe ever seen.

What happened after October 2018 at the site has been well-documented by neighbors as well as news reports:

Eagle constructed most of the current school building without a DCRA permit to do so. Specifically, between October 2018 and April 5, 2019, when DCRA granted a permit for a new building (B1900557), Eagle had no permit for building anything above ground at the site. The first news story, on May 3, 2019, showed that the building structure was nearly completed by that time.

Also by that time, adjacent structures had apparently sustained damage from the construction—while DOEE appeared to be disconnected from whatever DCRA was (or was not) doing.

For instance, on February 14, 2019, DOEE inspector Khalil Wood performed an erosion and sediment inspection—and said erosion and sediment controls “were in place and functioning properly” (second FOIA, p. 80).

But on March 22, 2019, a different DOEE inspector cited the property for problems with sediment (second FOIA, p. 678).

Erosion—And Mounting Pressure

Environmental problems at the site appeared to continue into that summer, when on July 12, 2019, another DOEE inspector noted issues with water and sediment (second FOIA, p. 675).

On 8/27/19, in response to a neighbor’s complaint of dirt sliding into her home, a DOEE inspector recommended some fixes (second FOIA, p. 9), which a subsequent DOEE inspection report, on 11/1/19, noted were done (second FOIA, p. 1).

The entire time, the storm water management system appeared to be progressing without any overt DOEE knowledge or oversight of it.

For instance, in October 2019, a VIKA employee, Soneil Charles, reached out to DOEE’s Dunbar, asking “if the as built [of the storm water management system] will suffice for any plan changes as we have had some changes on the property.”

The FOIA productions suggest that those changes included consolidating several smaller stormwater control areas areas into just a single one, at the back of the steeply sloped property (first FOIA, p. 143). Dunbar replied that it might involve a plan revision–while the FOIA production suggests that Dunbar might not have known what those changes actually were.

On 12/27/19, Khalil Wood of DOEE reached out to Dunbar to ask if the contractors had contacted him for modifications of the storm water management system at 2345 R SE (second FOIA, p. 833).

On 1/2/20, Dunbar replied via email that he was trying “to wrap my head around the revisions to this plan. I’m disappointed that VIKA thought they could wrap up these changes in the as builts—they know better” (second FOIA, p. 838).

Minutes after Dunbar sent that 1/2/20 email, Eagle’s construction manager for the building emailed Dunbar and said “we need to schedule a meeting with you to go over the revised drawings for the SWM [storm water management system]. . . . this is critical to try and get this project completed as soon as possible” (second FOIA, p. 775).

That “critical” timing may very well have come from leases that Eagle was in the process of assuming. That same month (January 2020), Eagle signed a lease to rent 2345 R SE to Lee Montessori starting in July 2020. Shortly thereafter, in February 2020, Eagle signed a lease for space at 1900 Half Street SW in lieu of ever locating at 2345 R SE.

All of that meant that starting early in 2020, a lot was hanging in the balance of 2345 R SE being completed before the summer.

A few days after the construction manager’s plea, Khalil Wood of DOEE noted to Dunbar on 1/5/20 that Eagle needed “additional slope protection if the [large, single storm water retention] pond is allowed” (second FOIA, p. 838).

To which Dunbar responded on 1/6/20 with a question: “Are you thinking erosion protection on the slopes or some sort of barrier at the top so people don’t fall down into it?”

Khalil Wood then responded a short time later with the following: “erosion protection along the banks. Maybe stone or gabion baskets. The soil composition is not good for growing grass or sod.”

The pictures that Wood sent with that January 2020 email showed that the hillside of the storm water management system that DOEE apparently never approved (and possibly never saw before its completion) was literally washing away, with deep groves on the hillside (second FOIA, p. 836).

Erosion Credit Khalil Wood, DC DOEE, 2020

But the pressure to keep moving forward appeared unwavering.

That same morning of January 6, 2020, Eagle’s construction manager sent Dunbar an email asking if he would “allow and approve a temporary U&O [presumably, a use and occupancy permit] while the as builts get approved. We desperately need to get this school opened” (first FOIA, p. 214).

Dunbar replied 20 minutes later that he couldn’t do that, saying “it’s above my paygrade.”

Two days later, on 1/8/2020 at 10 am, Dunbar sent an email to VIKA’s Soneil Charles, copying Tim Karikari of DOEE and Eagle’s construction manager. It says this (boldface mine):

“Tim and I were reviewing the project . . . and we have some serious concerns about the SWM plan. Frankly there are things on this plan we never would have approved in the first place, but we never received this project for a revision review before a final inspection was requested, despite our inspector asking repeatedly for the plan to be resubmitted to DOEE for a revision approval over several months. We need to talk to you in person to sort these issues out” (second FOIA, p. 774).

The DOEE FOIA production I received suggests that some time on January 8, 2020, Tim Karikari of DOEE, Dunbar, and several VIKA employees met to discuss the storm water management system at the school (second FOIA, p. 942). It is unclear whether they had in hand the 1/8/20 report that Dunbar produced with many questions about the storm water management plan, including the observation that the slope was too steep (second FOIA, p. 505).

The morning of the next day, 1/9/20, VIKA personnel emailed DOEE that they wanted to submit a storm water plan revision (second FOIA, p. 749, 868).

Dunbar reviewed a revised plan on 2/4/20—then reviewed a different revised plan on 3/6/20. A new storm water covenant was sent on 3/20/20 to the attorney general for his signature (second FOIA, p. 197). The next month, engineering firm Hillis-Carnes gave the revised storm water management system, now built with a gabion wall, the all-clear, with a note that the change was done to address erosion and the problematic slope (second FOIA, p. 118).

A series of pictures, presumably from spring 2020, shows installation of the gabion wall (second FOIA, p. 280ff).

But several also show standing water, while others show sod (which DOEE’s Khalil Wood determined earlier wouldn’t work) as well as a large elm in ill health (second FOIA, p. 292ff). (That tree, at the top of the image immediately below, was recently chopped down.)

Standing Water Credit DC DOEE 2020
Sod Credit DC DOEE 2020

On 5/14/20, DOEE did a final inspection, noting that the gabion wall was constructed to support the slope and gave it the all clear (second FOIA, p. 71-2).

The Pond & The Pressured

Just a few months later, in July 2020, the storm water management system at 2345 R SE stopped draining and simply became a large pond. Neighbors noted that mosquitoes were congregating around the stagnant water, which was completely unsecured and, according to neighbors, emitting odors. A neighbor’s house camera showed children playing around the open water.

Despite months of complaints, and requests to have the pond drained and secured with a fence, nothing changed.

In October 2020, in response to a complaint I had lodged with DOEE, DOEE’s Joshua Rodriguez wrote to me via email that the storm water management system was “constructed under a DOEE-approved erosion and sediment control plan and stormwater management plan . . . the standing water is a current symptom of the greater performance problem of the system. . . . Given the design of the system, draining the bioretention cell or installing a fence around the bioretention are not acceptable solutions.”

Rodriguez also noted that DOEE was working with both the school’s owner, Eagle Academy, as well as its tenant, Lee Montessori, to get the system fixed.

The DOEE FOIA production I received shows that on 10/20/20, DOEE personnel emailing about the storm water management system at 2345 R SE noted that there was no landscape plan in the final plan set; that Dunbar had gone through 3 revisions and missed that the landscape plan wasn’t included after the first set; and that the storm water management design was “completely overhauled after approval” (first FOIA, p. 163).

Another DOEE employee, Walter Caldwell, then noted (boldface mine) that “the landscape plan was not included in the final plan set and as a result not implemented for the site improvement as shown in the as built. It’s all underwater now, laterally, so probably for the better. We’ll straighten it out” (first FOIA, p. 163).

While that would appear to contradict what Rodriguez emailed me in that same month about DOEE’s oversight, more telling was the nonpublic back and forth with several DOEE employees at the same time.

For instance, Dunbar emailed on 10/21/20 another DOEE employee, Julienne Bautista (who was copied on the 10/20/20 emails) that Soneil Charles from VIKA was “leaning” on him and Tim “pretty hard” when the first revision came around, noting “I don’t take Soneil’s BS anymore” (first FOIA, p. 157). In the next hour, Bautista emailed Caldwell that “we got a lot of pressure to approve this charter school project” (first FOIA, p. 167).

The next day, 10/22/20, an inspection report from DOEE noted a number of problems with the storm water management system at 2345 R SE, including erosion and sediment and trash accumulation along with the standing water (second FOIA, p. 40). A DOEE maintenance notice was sent to Eagle the same day (second FOIA, p. 87).

Still, the pond went on.

Production in a FOIA request by someone else showed an email, dated 12/11/20, that contained a reference to the storm water management system having 6 inches of standing water at that time (see p. 2 of this FOIA response).

The pond in fact stood there for most of a year until April 2021, when it was drained and the outlets cleared, which was noted in a DOEE inspection report from 4/28/21. A maintenance inspection was done on 6/21/21, which only noted that the system lacked full plant coverage (second FOIA, p. 490ff).

Silence (Or, The Fruit Of Pressure?)

In October 2021, a year after I first complained to DOEE about the pond, I wrote to city officials, demanding that they provide restitution for neighbors whose structures were damaged.

I got no reply.

That was the essentially the same response neighbors got from the DC attorney general, to whom they wrote about the damage to their properties as a result of the construction and their desire to have the city help them immediately.

Those nonresponses appear to be part of a pattern with regard to this charter school development.

Specifically, the same government agencies and elected and appointed officials that allowed un-permitted construction and subsequent harm to adjacent properties as well as apparent damage to the environment were also responsible for a variety of other problems regarding this development–including poor oversight of the DC revenue bonds that funded it and nonpayment of property taxes (which itself might have violated the DC revenue bonds agreement).

All of those things were made very clear to DC’s elected and appointed officials at many steps over the course of years.

Yet, instead of restitution, there was silence in response to public pleas for help–even while the pressure on one agency (DOEE) to complete the development suggests that there was likely pressure on multiple DC agencies and officials.

And there was also this:

–DC revenue bonds to build 2345 R SE were approved by the DC Council literally the day after the charter board approved Eagle Academy being at 2345 R SE, which means that not only was the council considering this use before the school was approved to be there, but that there was no concern over the fact that Eagle never did locate at that address.

–The school had incomplete payment of property taxes at 2345 R SE, leading up to a threat of a tax sale earlier this year—only to have the slate wiped clean just this month, giving it a tax credit even while the total due in August appears to be more than the total paid.

–The charter board ignored all of that (and more) in approving Eagle’s plans—and ensured public comment against Eagle was erased and mischaracterized.

–The FOIA productions I received suggested that fines levied against Eagle for un-permitted work amounted to pennies on the dollar of construction costs, with work proceeding apace–even as “preconstruction” meetings with various agencies took place after the fact. Those FOIA’ed materials also suggested that the only instances in which DC agencies coordinated with one another was to green-light development at the property.

In accord with this, neighbors told me that they literally heard pressure being applied by various actors on behalf of the school to finish the storm water management project to get a certificate of occupancy. Neighbors also told me that gas company workers laying a gas line said that they were under pressure to complete their work at the school.

Taken together with that, the FOIA productions show that this property’s development as a charter school was apparently prioritized repeatedly over almost everything else—including public safety.

Makes you wonder what was so very important. Clearly, it wasn’t us DC residents.

2 thoughts on ““We Got A Lot Of Pressure To Approve This Charter School Project”

  1. Wow, I always wondered what exactly folks meant about the botched construction job. This description is pretty thorough. A neighbor reported her next door neighbor’s roof collapsed at an ANC meeting. I think in relation to this project. Any info on that?

    Like

    1. Yes: I heard that it was a ceiling in the house that collapsed–nonetheless, the resident had to move out because there were a number of issues in the house that came up when Eagle constructed the school without a permit. I believe the house remains unoccupied and unoccupiable.

      There has literally been no justice for any of the people in this neighborhood who have been and continue to be harmed by this development. Our city has failed–spectacularly–to protect their interests for at least 3 years. Also, DC elected and appointed officials have never fulsomely responded to requests for help, and our city continues to prioritize the desires of charter operators here over any public interest and need.

      For instance, the school renting the building now, Lee, hopes to buy it and expand it, to accommodate Lee’s enrollment expansion, which the charter board approved years before–well before Lee was at this location. (That loophole, by the way, advantages charters at the direct expense of DC residents–since Lee was already approved, people here literally have NO say in what Lee wants to do now.)

      Anyway, to do that physical expansion of the building at 2345 R SE, Lee needs to close a “paper” alley that is public and was improperly ignored during construction by Eagle but subsumed into the property. To accommodate Lee’s desires, DDOT proposed to swap that alley with part of a driveway Lee/Eagle shares with a neighbor.

      But this closure HAS to by code go through the council!

      It hasn’t thus far–and since few in DC government seemed concerned about years of lawbreaking at this location, what are the chances now that it will go through the council for approval? And even if it somehow makes it to the council docket, who on that body will NOT approve it, given that they have not concerned themselves AT ALL with years of lawbreaking at this property??

      Moreover, as I noted in the piece, the FOIA dump I received from DOEE was UNredacted and included emails–unlike all the other FOIA productions I received around this property. It was those 2 things–no redactions and a large set of emails–that allow us to see how pressure was applied to one agency to approve the desires of a charter school even against what regulations outline.

      The question this DOEE production raises is *what other agencies of the DC government received similar pressures to approve this school’s desires?*

      As I noted in the piece, there was also the issue of an office of planning document received by someone else in a FOIA production that not only was never produced for me, but also outlined how development exactly like what was done by Eagle at this property would likely harm adjacent structures.

      It’s not nice to think of DC agencies destroying and/or hiding public documents–but it would appear that this is exactly what happened to me in my FOIA requests. That 1996 document is literally dangerous, because it makes VERY clear that officials in the city knew of the hazards of building like Eagle did on this site–and in the last 3 years those officials actively TURNED AWAY from doing due diligence to protect properties and the public.

      All of this suggests that other DC agencies also received pressures to look the other way, to let the lawbreaking play out, and/or to hide evidence of it. As with Trump, the question is: if a majority of elected officials are willing to let lawbreaking go without consequence, do we have a democracy or an autocracy?

      Like

Leave a Reply to Carlene Reid Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s