Council Overrules Residents, OKs School Expansion

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Although victorious in earlier battles, a group of Woodland Hills residents on Tuesday lost its war to block expansion of an Orthodox Jewish school with a checkered history of complying with city zoning rules.

By a 12-0 vote, the Los Angeles City Council, at the urging of Councilwoman Joy Picus, supported a plan to more than double enrollment at the Beit Hamidrash Temple school at 5840 Fallbrook Ave. from 56 to 140 students.

"To lose 12-to-0 was unbelievable," said Charles Nixon, a homeowner opposed to the expansion.

Before Tuesday, the school's neighbors had scored several victories at City Hall in their campaign to prevent the expansion.

First, a city zoning administrator ruled in their favor and his ruling was upheld by his superior. Next, the Board of Zoning Appeals backed the homeowners when the synagogue appealed the lower officials' ruling.

Most recently, the council's planning committee split 1-to-1 over the issue.

But Tuesday the vote was unanimous against the homeowners after Picus urged her colleagues to back the expansion. Afterward, a happy, teary-eyed Rabbi Zev Raush embraced members of his congregation.

Homeowners blamed their defeat on Picus.

"She's the school's patron saint," Nixon said. It is an unwritten rule at City Hall that on zoning matters, the council follows the wishes of the local lawmaker.

Although neighbors had complained that expansion would add to their existing parking and traffic woes, Picus said neighbors could not expect Fallbrook Avenue to be lightly traveled.

"To call it a residential street is a mistake," Picus said. It is a heavily used thoroughfare, she said.

Picus also said neighbors' complaints that the school and synagogue had violated previously imposed zoning conditions were "minor" or could not be substantiated by city inspectors.

Picus later said that she had not lobbied her colleagues on the school matter but that Steve Afriat, lobbyist for Beit Hamidrash, had.

"But I'd say my speech was influential with my colleagues," she said.

During the debate, Louise Nixon, a homeowner foe of the project, alleged that "there has not been one single day" when the synagogue and its school complied completely with the 26 conditions imposed by the city in 1989 when the facility opened.

The homeowners argued that the synagogue and school could not be trusted to meet the city's latest proposed conditions if they were not complying with the existing ones, and Beit Hamidrash had also been accused in 1988 of illegally operating a synagogue on Oxnard Street.

City zoning officials largely agreed with homeowners.

"The applicants have shown a complete disregard for their neighbors, for the zoning and building regulations of the city of Los Angeles, as well as flagrantly violated many of the conditions of approval" for their operations, City Zoning Administrator Bert Sincosky wrote in a ruling this year.

Even Afriat told the planning committee a month ago that his client had "not been a perfect neighbor and we've made mistakes."

However, the synagogue and school have not been cited by city building inspectors for violating the conditions of their conditional use permit, which religious institutions need to operate in a residential zone.

Homeowners contended that the city's Building and Safety Department, which enforces zoning regulations, has not enforced the prior conditions.

Robert Janovici, chief zoning administrator, told the council that he and his staff believed the homeowners' complaints that the conditions were not being met. After the council session, Janovici speculated that building inspectors may have been unable to find transgressions because some of the conditions "are difficult to enforce" and the inspectors "do not work on Saturdays," the Jewish Sabbath, when the largest numbers of people are on the site.

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