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Neighbors accuse church of too much joyful noise

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"Is this a church?" Sidonie Smith said as she stood outside Grant Elementary in Santa Monica. "I'm so excited about the impact it will have on our community. I've been praying for a church to come here for 40 years."

Not all residents share Smith's enthusiasm. Since late January, some neighbors have expressed dissatisfaction with the arrangement between City of God church and its landlord, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.

Six district campuses allow larger churches to rent space when schools aren't in session. A state law allows various organizations to meet at schools. Churches, without a suitable home, can worship on a "one-time or renewable basis..." defined as temporary, according to the law.

Azin Ehsan, who moved to the area in 2001, complained that the church service at Grant is noisy, has too many signs and banners and brings more cars to the neighborhood.

"I don't want anything happening here on Sundays," said Ehsan, a mother of three. "We have so much noise during the week, we just want it to be quiet. They should find a better venue."

The complaints have blindsided the Rev. Casey Bombacie, leader of the church.

Bombacie, a Seattle native, moved to Los Angeles last year to start the church. School district officials suggested Grant's auditorium because of the new church's small congregation.

The church pays about $1,067 a week to rent the auditorium, a classroom for a children's service and for district staff who must also be on campus, according to Carey Upton, the district's director of facility use.

Bombacie said that while the church is at Grant, the plan is to invest in the school with new chairs, repaint the auditorium and garden on the school's grounds.

Despite good intentions, Ehsan and other neighbors, including Alex Cardenas and Judy Cohen, aren't sold. Ehsan said the church's rental fee doesn't outweigh the environmental impact.

Cardenas said he can hear the worship service from his home, two houses away. He worries that if the church grows, it will bring even more congestion to the neighborhood, which already has traffic during the week from the elementary school and Santa Monica College, a few blocks west.

"When I moved into the neighborhood, I knew what I was getting into. We didn't buy into the fact that it would be a church on Sundays," Cardenas said. "The school district seems to think this isn't an issue."

Three of them, including Cardenas, met last month with Upton, district Supt. Sandra Lyon and Grant's Principal Shirley Compton to express their concerns.

City of God hasn't broken any rules outlined in its agreement with the district, Upton said. Bombacie said neighbors haven't spoken to him about their concerns, but he is working with Upton to accommodate them.

Since then, City of God sets up an hour later before its 10 a.m. service. Churchgoers are urged to park in the rear lot, although street parking is allowed on the weekends along Pearl and 25th streets around the school. Signage was reduced after some neighbors found it excessive.

"When these schools were built, they were considered and used as the civic centers of the community," Upton said in an email. "We believe they should still be."

Smith, meanwhile, said she was disappointed about the opposition directed toward the church.

"Nobody complains when John Adams [Middle School] has football games. I don't hear about people writing letters about what a nuisance that is but suddenly, the church for an hour makes a different noise and the community is in an uproar?" Smith asked. "We can't have a double standard about noise in the community."

Bombacie doesn't expect the church to remain at the school permanently. The auditorium seats about 165 people, although Upton said that when the church nears 75 regular members, it could be time to find City of God a new venue. About 55 people attended City of God's Feb. 23 service, the official launch of the church's weekly meetings.

City of God's permit is up for renewal June 29. Whether the church stays or goes rests with the district.

alicia.banks@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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