High on a mesa in the hills, shielded from the world by a deep canyon of old oak trees, sits the campus of Pacific Coast Baptist Bible College.
So secluded is this training ground for ministers and church workers that neighbors who happen upon the campus often remark: “I had no idea you were here.”
Now they know.
That’s because the Christian fundamentalists who operate the college are seeking approval for a plan to remake their verdant hillside west of the Foothill Freeway--demolishing the existing campus in favor of a newer model and financing the development with the construction of an adjoining tract of 114 new homes.
The Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission will consider the proposal Wednesday. It is reviewing the development because the property is in unincorporated territory, although it is surrounded by the city of San Dimas.
The commission’s recommendation to the Board of Supervisors will hinge on the wishes of the Bible college--wanting a new campus to shore up declining enrollment--and the desires of the surrounding bedroom communities--hoping to prevent changes at one of the San Gabriel Valley’s most rugged nature preserves.
At a hearing on the proposal last month, a college official talked about the importance of training ministers of God. Residents talked about saving historic oaks and the habitats of coyotes, opossums, owls and mountain lions.
Both sides say they hope those goals can coexist peacefully, as the manicured campus property and untamed Walnut Creek canyon have for most of this century.
The campus was built in 1928 as a home for underprivileged boys. A decade later, the home closed and 150 acres and more than a dozen Spanish-style buildings were donated to the state for the operation of a Cal Poly campus. When Cal Poly completed its move to Pomona in 1972, the Baptist Bible Fellowship made the San Dimas property the permanent home of the Bible college.
By the late 1970s, Pacific Coast Baptist Bible College was flourishing, with an enrollment of 500 students. Most of the students, then and now, come from the 300 churches in the western United States that also donate half of the college’s operating budget.
But enrollment has gradually declined over the last decade to its current low of 170 students. Sixty-seven of those come from California and the rest from out of state or overseas.
Larry Stonebraker, a preacher from Kansas who is the college’s administrator, cites several causes for the declining enrollment.
As the population of teen-agers has been shrinking, so has the supply of students for colleges and universities all over the country. The number of high school graduates will drop 11.8% from 1988 to 1994, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. And 672 colleges and universities reported openings in their freshman classes this summer, 27% more than just two years ago, according to the National Assn. of College Admissions Counselors.
The American Assn. of Bible Colleges has reported that attendance dropped 14.5% during the 1980s at 65 colleges the association accredits.
Undergraduate Bible colleges, which mix liberal arts and religious studies, have also been hurt by the shrinking number of full-time church jobs available to graduates and the desire of many churches to hire pastors with graduate degrees from seminaries, said Bill Wilson, assistant director of the Bible college association.
Men leaving the San Dimas school once could move right into full-time ministerial positions, but now many must bide their time with part-time assignments or as counselors or teachers, Stonebraker said. The church allows only men to enter its ministry.
Baptist Bible College also may have been hurt by its lack of accreditation. Although the college is approved by the state to issue bachelor’s degrees, it has not been fully accredited because most of its teachers are ministers from the community who do not hold graduate degrees that college rating organizations require.
And Stonebraker sees a more pervasive reason for the two-thirds drop in his school’s enrollment.
“Society is so achievement and materially oriented,” he said. “The young people want to make it big, make a lot of money and make it in the world.”
The Baptist ministers who make up the college’s board of directors said many of those problems are beyond their control.
What they can improve, they say, is the condition of the college itself.
The 60-year-old campus buildings, with their red tile roofs, may hold some charm, but that wears thin when the roofs leak in winter, said the Rev. Frank Johnson, college president and a minister in Midland, Tex. Foundations are cracked, wiring is faulty and plumbing drips.
So the college has drawn a plan to scrap all but one of the 18 buildings on campus and replace them with 14 new Spanish-style structures spread across 27 acres. Under the plan, 70 acres would be set aside for parkland along Walnut Creek and the remaining 53 acres would be sold to Century American Corp., a Laguna Hills-based home builder, to pay for the new campus.
The Regional Planning Commission will consider both the campus expansion and Century American’s proposed housing tract.
Neighbors’ complaints have centered on access to the homes and the school. The county Fire Department has said the expanded college and homes will need two access roads to service the area, which is prone to brush fires.
Only one road leads to the property now--a narrow, curving private lane that snakes onto campus from the north via Valley Center Avenue. It would have to be widened and improved to become a public thoroughfare.
Century American would have to find a second access for its 114 homes.
It would be cheapest to build a road from the south, through the existing Via Verde subdivision. Several streets there come within a few feet of the campus and could be easily extended. But Via Verde homeowners have fought against such access, saying their neighborhood already has too much traffic.
A road from the west would also have to come through an existing neighborhood, the Mesa Oaks tract. Homeowners there were opposed, but at last month’s Planning Commission hearing, more than 30 Mesa Oaks residents appeared to support the project--after the developer agreed not to build an entry road past their homes. They called Century American sensitive and receptive.
That leaves only the possibility of an access road from San Dimas Avenue on the east, according to Century American executives. They have proposed a massive landfill to bridge the rough canyon between the avenue and the plateau where the homes and college will be built.
It is the reconfiguration of the land to build this street--the removal of 632,000 cubic yards of earth and filling with an almost equal amount--that neighbors and officials in neighboring San Dimas have protested. The developer’s own reports also show that 361 oak trees will be uprooted.
Most neighbors say they feel some type of improvement is inevitable on the college property but that excessive movement of earth and removal of trees will damage a canyon sanctuary that has been a favorite of hikers, cyclists, joggers and horseback riders.
Opponents often express their dismay simply by recounting their favorite tales of wildlife encounters near Walnut Creek.
“There was a big owl in that tree over there the other night and it was really hooting,” said 10-year resident Kenneth Bickford. “It would be a shame to see that disappear.”
Emmett Vogan, who lives in the Via Verde area, recalled: “We’ve had raccoons in the pool--just splashing away and taking a drink--in the middle of the night.” His wife, Elizabeth, added: “They’re adorable!”
The college’s directors and Century American say they are doing their part for conservation by setting aside 70 acres of land that will not be developed. They say they designed roadways to have as little impact on wildlife as possible.
Development doesn’t find such obstacles in his native Texas, college President Johnson said.
“When we want to do everything within the law and build something that will benefit the community,” Johnson said, “I have trouble seeing the picture of how someone could be against it.”
Mike Abata, who lives near the college entrance, said neighbors are trying to be reasonable. “It’s a hard question,” Abata said. “I’m sure there is some point when everyone agrees the building has to stop, but no one can agree on when that should be.”