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Council Would Rather Wash Hands of Issue : P. V. Estates Promises to Decide Soon Whether Church Can Build Social Hall

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Times Staff Writer

City Council members say they soon will decide an issue that has riled the affluent Malaga Cove community for six years--whether to allow the Neighborhood Church to build a social hall on its blufftop property.

It’s about time, say several hundred residents who recently issued a collective statement saying it is “absolutely unconscionable” that the city is still considering the matter in the face of opposition from about 495 people, including “98% of the homeowners in Malaga Cove.”

Councilman Ronald Florance said he wished that the residents and the church could arrive at a compromise so the city would not have to decide the issue, because whichever side loses may go to court.

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“If we say fine, they can’t build it, the cove will be pleased,” he said. “But the church would evaluate its options and possibly sue . . . They are asking to do something with their property, and there are property rights.”

The entire council was hoping for a settlement last summer when it postponed action on a conditional-use permit for the project after the church said it was prepared to make some concessions to the neighbors.

The antagonists met but failed to agree, and Florance said it now is up to the council to use the wisdom of Solomon and settle the issue.

Popular for Weddings

Because of its scenic location, the church is a popular site for weddings, both for parishioners and for outsiders. The city allows the church to have four large weddings--those with more than 75 guests--per week. There is no limit on smaller weddings. The church says it averages three weddings a week.

Critics argue that the social hall will lead to expansion of church activities, including more weddings and meetings by groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, which would aggravate problems of traffic, noise and automobile headlights shining through their windows. They also have questioned the geological stability of the building site.

Church officials say the social hall is needed so they can add permanent pews and make other improvements to its sanctuary, a portion of which now serves as a social hall. They say they have offered to limit activities, including the number of large weddings. On the question of terrain stability, the church contends that the land is stable and bluff erosion averages less than an inch a year.

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Conditional Grading Permit

The city Planning Commission last week approved a grading permit for the social hall, subject to several conditions aimed at improving drainage and reducing bluff erosion.

Under the permit, the church also would not be able to hold the city liable for any damages to the church, which is designed to prevent problems such as those at Bluff Cove, where city insurance carriers have paid millions of dollars for losses blamed on faulty city-owned storm drains.

However, the permit may not be obtained until the church receives a conditional-use permit, which is required because the church is on residentially zoned property. The Planning Commission last year recommended against the permit, primarily because an environmental study concluded that the expansion would increase traffic.

The council will decide on both permits as early as next month, city officials said.

Residents and the church both concede that the efforts at a compromise failed.

“We want no modification of their building,” said resident Joseph Caponetto. “What we want is for them to remodel the space they have.”

Rationale Given

James R. Dunn, chairman of the church building committee, said, “The only reason we’re going through this at all is to get permission to build our building.”

Dunn said the church is amenable to reducing the number of large weddings to two a week, to have large meetings, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, start earlier to minimize nighttime disturbances, and to allow only church members to have wedding receptions there.

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But residents want more concessions. Dr. Benjamin Kuchar said all weddings should be subject to the limit.

He said other churches in the city have an average of 30 weddings a year, and that should hold for the Neighborhood Church as well.

Dunn, contending that many who oppose the church do not live near it, asserted that the residents won support by misleading people into believing that the church planned to put up a commercial building.

He said the project is simply a way of transferring social activities to another area “to make our sanctuary a little more integrated, but we’ve never been able to convince anyone that this is the case.”

Dunn said the church is now putting together its own statement to be signed by people who support the church.

Opponents More Vocal

After last week’s Planning Commission meeting, Chairman Don Pedersen said that so far, the opponents have been the most vocal. He said the church has supporters who “have been restrained, have not made a show of force.”

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The Neighborhood Church, which was organized in 1924 and met for years in private homes or rented space, bought its property--once the estate of the department store magnate J. J. Haggarty--in 1952. “The church is a part of the community, living within its regulations, doing what it was permitted to do 35 years ago,” Dunn said. It has a membership of 850.

But in their statement, opposing residents said that over the years, the church has grown into a “wedding chapel” and meeting hall aggravating traffic in a neighborhood that also contends with beachgoers and people using a city swimming pool and Malaga Cove School.

Despite homeowner views to the contrary, city officials say that the issue probably could not have been handled faster because of the complications.

According to city and church officials, time was spent getting social hall designs approved by the Palos Verdes Homes Assn., which passes on the exterior appearance of all buildings in the city. Then there was confusion over whether the city or the state Coastal Commission had jurisdiction over the project. Eventually, it was decided that the city had jurisdiction, whereupon the city required an environmental study, which was not approved until early last year.

Opposition Not Sole Factor

Unlike the residents who think several hundred opponents are reason enough for killing the church project, Councilman James Kinney said he does not believe this opposition is the only factor.

“The entire environmental consideration is the large factor, what type of impact this will have, besides just the local opposition,” he said. “Another thing would be if the city were to deny the application, will the neighbors still be upset with church activities?”

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Councilwoman Barbara Culver said the main issue is traffic and how much the church is contributing to it.

She said most churches have fellowship halls and the Neighborhood Church deserves one. On the other hand, she said, if it were to lead to significant traffic increases there would be good reason to oppose it.

“Both sides have an argument,” she said.

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