Commission Holds Hearing on Church's Building Plan : Development: Seventh- day Adventists submit revised proposal for school, stores, homes. Approval would require regulatory changes.

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Except for the names of the planning commissioners, not much has changed regarding discussions of a Seventh-day Adventist plan to develop about 180 rugged acres on the west side of the city.

The Thousand Oaks Planning Commission held the first of at least three public hearings Monday night on the proposal to build homes, school buildings, and a large shopping mall complete with a 12-screen theater on the property off Wendy Drive.

The hearings are expected to be a repeat of a series of more than five marathon meetings the commission--which has since seen three members replaced--held almost a year ago on the same project.

Since the commission rejected that proposal in January, church officials have retooled the project by reducing the number of homes from 85 to 45 and reducing the amount of dirt that would have to be moved to accommodate construction.

"We think the changes we've made are significant," said Chuck Cohen, special counsel to the church.

But city planners say the project hasn't changed very much, and last week they recommended that the commission reject it again.

At Monday's meeting, commissioners listened to the church's developer and city planners detail the environmental impact of the plan. They also heard from dozens of supporters of the project.

All but three of the 61 attendees who asked to speak said they were in favor of the project, including about a dozen students from the Seventh-day Adventist Academy.

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Along with the environmental effects, the commission will have to consider changing the city's General Plan to allow for construction in this area of the church's property, which is zoned for rural uses only. The commissioners would also have to consider changing zoning laws to permit construction on slopes in excess of 25 degrees.

To develop the rugged canyon where the school and homes are planned, engineers would have to fill gullies and cut into the hillsides. Construction, which is expected to cost more than $100 million, would affect about 180 acres of the 458 acres the church owns.

In a toughly worded, 20-page letter, the local chapter of the Sierra Club criticized the developer's plans.

Club officials reiterated their earlier fears that the development would wipe out or severely damage the habitat of endangered plants as well a ruin a pristine canyon and its hillsides.

"We've already been through all of this," said Cassandra Auerback, a spokeswoman for the environmental group. "It's a waste of time and a way for the developer and their attorney to make a lot of money off the church."

The developer resubmitted the plan hoping that the new members of both the commission and the new City Council would look more favorably on the project, Auerback said.

One planning commissioner, John Powers, said the project is different and should be given a fresh look.

After touring the property on Friday, Powers said he sympathizes with church officials who have said that they want to recapture the rural feel their school had when it was built 50 years ago.

"I just believe the terrain is good for excavation," Powers said.

Powers said church officials were not asking to develop an area much larger than the area currently in use and that the latest proposal has scaled back the amount of grading proposed for the site.

"From my construction background, I can say they could have proposed to do a lot more fill in those canyons," he said. "But they're trying to work within the terrain that is there."

The church's plan is to sell off the land where their aging campus now stands to a mall developer and use the proceeds to move the campus farther north on the property, into the pristine canyon and away from the Ventura Freeway.

The Planning Commission will meet again next week to discuss the project.

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