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Plan for Sikh Religious Center Fails : North Hills: City rejects request for multipurpose facility. Leaders of growing sect charge discrimination.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Bowing to neighborhood opposition, the city has rejected a request to create a Sikh sanctuary in North Hills, triggering claims of religious discrimination by local leaders of the Indian religion.

“People do not want people to come in with a turban in their neighborhood,” said Malkiat Singh Sidhu, chairman of the San Fernando Valley’s only Sikh place of worship, the Gurdwara Temple in North Hollywood.

“There’s no traffic problem. There’s no access problem. So everything is fine. It’s discrimination.”

Said attorney Pauline Amond, whose firm represented the Sikhs: “It’s the unknown. Sikhs are relatively new to the community. (Other residents) don’t know how much noise they will make, how loud they will be.”

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Amond believes that misunderstanding of the Sikh culture heightened community opposition to the project and may have led to its defeat.

An appeal is likely. “It’s almost unconstitutional to turn down a place of worship of this kind,” Amond said.

This week, Andrew B. Sincowsky, an associate city zoning administrator, ruled against the conversion of a single-family residence at 14920 Plummer St. in North Hills into a 33,000-square-foot religious, day-care and senior-citizen center. In a written decision, he concluded that it would create too much activity on the lot and have a “detrimental” impact on the character of the neighborhood.

The proposal called for the conversion of an existing single-family home and parcel of land into a library, reading room and sanctuary. Two accessory buildings would also be demolished in order to construct a one-story building, which would include a kitchen.

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In addition to the temple, the facility would have included a 25-student day-care center for children 3 to 6 years old, as well as a senior-citizen community center. Thirty parking spaces were also planned.

Sikhism is an Indian religion combining elements of Islam and Hinduism. Sikhs in India have been embroiled in a decade-long struggle to make the province of Punjab into a separate Sikh nation. In 1991 alone, the battle claimed more than 5,800 lives. Sikhs comprise about 60% of the population of Punjab, but constitute a small minority throughout India.

Residents gathered more than 80 signatures opposing the complex, which were presented during a hearing last year. Neighbors expressed concerns about traffic, parking and noise and that the 150-person limit at the Sikh temple was misleading.

City officials confirmed that the denial of a conditional-use permit for a place of worship is unusual, but rejected the claim of religious discrimination.

“The policy of the city is it is very difficult to say no to a church,” said Tom Henry, chief planning deputy for City Councilman Joel Wachs, who represents the area. “It’s generally accepted that churches belong in residential communities. It’s part of the urban fabric.

“In this case, the neighbors had very valid concerns for what was being proposed in a very small lot. Basically, our position right now is that the neighbors concerns were extremely valid.”

Denying requests for sanctuaries is unusual, said Frank Eberhard, Chief Deputy Director of the Los Angeles Planning Department.

“Any house of worship is going to be considered as proposed, no matter what religion it is, in terms of its effect on the traffic and noise of the neighborhood,” Eberhard said. “Maybe one in 100 gets turned down, but that’s a guess. But we’ve turned down some very controversial cases,” he said.

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Sidhu said his community is growing rapidly, and needs more facilities. There are approximately 5,000 Sikhs in the San Fernando Valley and more emigrating from India each year.

“There is a demand for more churches,” Sidhu said. “We have about 1,000 members. Our church is pretty crowded.”

Correspondent Kurt Pitzer contributed to this story.


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