Zoners Block Teen Center's Bid to Move to Tujunga Site

Times Staff Writer

After an emotional and sometimes acrimonious five-hour hearing Tuesday, the Los Angeles Board of Zoning Appeals unanimously denied a permit that would have allowed a center for emotionally disturbed teen-agers to move into a residential Tujunga neighborhood.

The Sunland-Tujunga Assn. of Residents, a homeowner group, had appealed a December decision by city zoning administrators to allow the Erickson Center for Adolescent Advancement to move into the former Sunair Home for Asthmatic Children on a 15-acre hillside site on McGroarty Street.

After listening to the testimony of half a dozen neighborhood residents, interspersed with angry comments from those in the 45-member audience, the board granted the homeowners' appeal--on grounds that the semi-rural residential area is inappropriate for the center.

"I think the community has legitimate concerns about the behavior of up to 72 teen-agers who have gone through physical, emotional and psychological abuse during their early years," said board member Joseph D. Mandel.

Painful Decision

Each of the four board members, however, said the decision was painful, or one of the toughest he or she has had to make.

"I think a residential center is not the proper location for this activity," said board member Nikolas Patsaouras. "I'm not saying anything about whether this activity is noble or valid. That, I think, is without question."

The Erickson Center is in the 18600 block of Oxnard Street in Tarzana, but its lease expired 18 months ago, said administrator Ian Hunter. It is renting the site on a monthly basis, he said.

The Sunair site--with its expansive grounds, existing school buildings and large recreation area--would have been "ideal" for the center, which serves 72 students from 13 to 17 years old, Hunter said.

"I think the site is absolutely ideal for the program we envision," he said. "It has all the elements that combine to make the kind of ambiance and positive atmosphere the kids need. The immediate atmosphere is very calming, very relaxing and very therapeutic."

But the homeowners said they feared that emotionally disturbed youngsters would be a danger to the community.

"We're concerned with how we can protect ourselves and our families should there be a problem that occurs," said Susan Brown, a mother of small children who lives within 300 feet of the site.

"It's not a site for children that need help," said Leah McKelvey, who also lives on McGroarty Street. "We have been inundated in the Sunland-Tujunga area with mentals. They have come into our community when we didn't know it. I don't think we have to be dumped on."

Center officials said no teen-agers with histories of criminal activity or violent behavior are admitted.

Students with "an orientation towards growth"--including those unable to get along with others at school, or those guilty of repeated truancy or defacing property--benefit from the center, Hunter said.

"These are not kids who need to be in a hospital or closed setting or correctional institution," he said. "These kids are there for us to help them become independent adults."

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