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Hilltop Episcopal Church Finally Takes Shape : Oak Park: More than 10 years in the planning, it stands above Kanan Road as a testament to the congregation’s patience and faith.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Perched on a bluff overlooking Oak Hills Elementary School and a subdivision of orange-tiled roofs and pink stucco walls sits the nearly completed Church of the Epiphany.

More than 10 years in the planning, it stands as a testament to the congregation’s patience, faith and checkbooks. But when it was proposed, some Oak Park residents saw the Kanan Road sanctuary as an example of how Ventura County officials ignore the wishes of this community of about 15,000 people.

The church’s steeple rises about 65 feet above Kanan Road, when the hill on which the building sits is included. And, once placed, its cross will reach a height of 85 feet. The imposing structure appears poised to become a defining landmark in Oak Park, which prides itself on well-sculpted lawns and unobtrusive neighbors.

“They are pretty bland,” said Ventura County senior planner Ron Allen, discussing the area’s architecture and design.

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Because of its height, the steeple became a lightning rod of controversy when it was approved four years ago.

Protesting that the steeple violated county zoning law, residents sought refuge with the Municipal Advisory Council, a local elected board charged with advising the county supervisors but vested with no legal authority.

“It is not a matter of religion,” Ron Stark, a longtime Oak Park resident and a member of the council, said when the issue came before the panel.

The council unanimously voted to uphold the local zoning laws that would prohibit the steeple.

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“It obstructed the view of the mountains for some,” Stark said.

But shortly after that vote, the county Board of Supervisors granted the church a waiver and allowed the steeple. It came to highlight the political turf battle between the advisory council and the supervisors.

“That was all before I got here,” said Rev. Glen (Hank) Mitchel, who has been dispatched to spread the Episcopal word in Oak Park.

“All I know is that it is a beautiful church,” he said of the structure designed in a neo-Gothic style.

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Few people dispute that.

Neighbors now say they have no problem with the church, and the complaints of four years ago seem to have faded after the church finally began to rise above its concrete foundation.

“It took them forever to build,” Churchwood Avenue neighbor Peter Gripon said. “But it looks beautiful.”

The wood-frame structure--complete with bell tower--is due to open in April. Meanwhile, its 270 or so parishioners have been worshiping in the North Ranch Community Center since 1980, keeping their chairs, altar and other religious items in storage at the center during the week and spending 90 minutes each Sunday setting up for services.

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“We even roll out the organ,” Mitchel said.

Newbury Park resident Theresa McEachern and her two sons said they have “been waiting forever” for the new church.

It took the congregation years to raise the $2.2 million needed to erect the church. More than $400,000 came from parish contributions, Mitchel said. Bonds purchased by parishioners and other Episcopalians throughout Southern California raised another $1.1 million.

The Episcopal Church came up with the balance. After years of delays, workers finally began construction in earnest in October, only to be halted by the recent rains.

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Now near completion, the sanctuary stands out in the neighborhood, surrounded by manicured hills.

“I like it,” said Father Peter O’Reilly, pastor of St. Maximilan Kolbe Church, a few blocks down Kanan Road.

O’Reilly’s church is now a storefront in a shopping center. But he and the congregation have plans to build a $3-million church at Kanan and Lindero Canyon roads in the next three years. O’Reilly does not expect to run into the same opposition as the Church of the Epiphany encountered.

“Ours will be quite different,” O’Reilly said. “We have height restrictions.” The design is a combination of Mediterranean and Mission-style architecture, he said.

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Besides, the Catholic church--just a few yards from the Church of the Epiphany--is within the city of Thousand Oaks. O’Reilly said plans for his church should go before the county Planning Commission next month.


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