An acrimonious six-year controversy appears to have ended after a two-hour public hearing this week when the Palos Verdes Estates City Council voted not to allow the Neighborhood Church to build a new social hall on its bluff-top property at Malaga Cove.
The church--a former estate built in an ornate Italian architectural style and commanding a spectacular ocean view--has become popular throughout the South Bay for weddings, prompting some critics to dub it a "wedding chapel."
The church, which regards weddings and meetings of groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous as part of its ministry, said the new hall would not lead to an expansion of such activities.
But the council sided with residents who have asserted since 1981 that traffic and noise would increase because the hall would be larger than a multipurpose room the church now uses for wedding receptions and other activities.
"It is incumbent on the council to follow the wishes of the neighbors," said Councilman James Kinney, who made the motion denying the church grading and conditional-use permits for the proposed 4,150-square-foot building.
The residents, who banded together as the Malaga Cove Homeowners Assn. when the church first proposed the expansion, claim to have nearly 500 signatures on a statement opposing the project, including those of 98% of Malaga Cove residents.
For its part, the church collected 250 signatures of people favoring the hall, the council was told by James R. Dunn, chairman of the church building committee.
Although the city staff had recommended several stringent conditions had the council chosen to allow the building--including a two-per-week limit on weddings and elimination of meetings except for church groups--Kinney said conditions "won't work" because "the neighbors think it is conflict with the residential character" of the area. He agreed that the new building "will create more noise and traffic and adversely affect the neighborhood."
Mayor Ruth Gralow and councilmen Edward Ritscher and Ronald Florance voted with Kinney, after saying they wished the efforts by the church and its neighbors to reach a compromise had succeeded. A formal resolution denying the project will be voted on in two weeks.
Councilwoman Barbara Culver cast the lone no vote, saying that the neighborhood's problems with the church's activities "will stay as they are and that benefits neither side." Culver said some of the conditions advanced to regulate the proposed social hall are needed because the cove not only has problems stemming from church traffic, but from people going to the beach and to Malaga Cove School.
The public hearing was fairly restrained considering the strong emotions that have surrounded the issue since the Malaga Cove neighbors and the church first met in 1981 to go over plans for the social hall.
The neighbors balked and since then the project has gone back and forth between the Planning Commission and the council. Engineering and environmental reports have been prepared and disputed. The state Coastal Commission got involved, ruling that the addition could be built if the church reached an agreement with the city on the scope of church activities.
Representatives of both sides said they have no animosity and said they will attempt to cooperate for the sake of the church and the neighborhood. But neither is saying for sure that the battle is over.
"There have been threats of a suit," said resident Dr. Benjamin Kuchar, referring to earlier speculation that whichever side lost might go to court. The homeowners are represented by an attorney, and Dunn said the church has spent $100,000 on the social hall project so far.
Dunn said that he will report to the church council, which will decide the next move. "I do not know what will happen with the social hall," he said. He declined to speculate on a lawsuit.
Conditions Don't Apply
Dunn said that because the social hall project has been rejected by the council, the Neighborhood Church is not bound by any conditions--including a 1984 agreement with the city limiting large weddings to four a week--except basic deed restrictions that limit church property to church-related activities.
"We will do whatever we find appropriate to carrying out our ministry," he said. In the past the church, which is affiliated with the United Churches of Christ, has considered all of its activities, including outside group meetings, as part of its ministry and community outreach.
Dunn, however, said he does believe the church will go beyond its present level of activities. Kuchar said the neighborhood expects the church to regulate itself, adding, "the association will not dissolve."
Smaller Project OK
During the course of the hearing, Sherman L. Stacey, attorney for the residents, said that since the church wants to replace the 1,400-square-foot multipurpose room, the residents would accept a plan to add that much space on to the existing church.
But Dunn said the 4,150 square feet proposed for the social hall also includes a kitchen that would be relocated from the church, as well as restrooms and storage space. "It is not as though this is an enormous building," he said.
When it was over, Kuchar said "the council listened to what the people of the city want."
Dunn said the church simply "didn't do a good job" presenting its case. "What I feel is frustration."