Residents of Pacific Palisades began buzzing in early April when the local newspaper ran a blurb about a fundraiser for the Palisades Jewish Early Childhood Center.
What got them talking wasn't the news that 10 tons of fresh snow would be trucked in for the April 6 event at the public Temescal Gateway Park, where the preschool operates out of three trailers and a fenced playground. No, it was the mention that the Chabad preschool would maintain its "natural setting" come fall when it moved to a location in the Castellammare area of the Palisades.
"The new facility will be open for community visits on or about May 5. Enrollment is now underway," the item read.
"What preschool?" residents of the quietly exclusive coastal enclave wondered.
Thus began a saga with more twists and turns than "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride," as one resident wryly calls it. How else to refer to a controversy, now coming to a head, that involves a branch of Judaism often characterized by ecstatic piety, the Mormon church, the Getty Villa, the state Department of Parks and Recreation, the California Coastal Commission, a city councilman, and a bunch of his affluent and highly agitated constituents for whom money is no object?
It all started, residents say, when Chabad of Pacific Palisades went looking for a new preschool site after the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy evicted it from Temescal Gateway Park, just north of Sunset Boulevard. After Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that Topanga State Park might be closed as part of a cost-cutting push, Chabad spoke with state parks officials about using a portion of Topanga in Los Liones Canyon. Parks officials were cool to the idea.
Chabad officials spotted a structure on the other side of Los Liones Drive at the back entrance of the nearby Getty Villa, next to a Mormon church. They learned that it was a warehouse at the rear of a Bellino Drive residential property owned by Gene Gladden, a longtime resident. Gladden agreed to lease the building to Chabad.
Under the direction of Rabbi Zushe Cunin, who heads Chabad of Pacific Palisades, workers installed windows, playground equipment, and pint-size tables and chairs. Chabad said it also planned to install three bathrooms.
Lori Fox, an attorney for the J. Paul Getty Trust, wrote to Cunin and Gladden, explaining that the warehouse was partly on Getty property and that Chabad representatives had been entering the property via the Getty service road, without permission. Fox expressed concern about whether the warehouse was safe for dozens of preschoolers. And she asked whether Chabad had sought all necessary permits and consulted with neighbors.
Chabad had not sought permits and has yet to formally apply, although Cunin said it planned to do so.
In a May 9 letter to neighborhood leaders, Fox said several men drove through the Getty's Los Liones gate April 24, "ignoring our security officers' instructions that they stop, and entered the warehouse."
By then, neighbors were in an uproar. How, they asked, would parents, children and staff gain access to the building? The only easy way in was the service road, and the Getty, citing its conditional-use permit and safety concerns, declined to give permission.
Chabad next looked to Bellino Drive on the hilltop above Gladden's warehouse. That entry point was problematic because it meant using a driveway shared by other residents, including actor Bo Svenson, who were vehemently opposed to the idea. From Bellino, the drive briefly descends before taking a sharp left turn. There is no convenient turnaround space. From Gladden's house, children, parents and staff would have to walk down a steep trail. The fact that Chabad would even consider it irritated some Bellino residents.
"To me, as a Jew, this is chutzpah, and I'm offended that a community within my own religion would be behaving toward a residential neighborhood in this manner," said Mike Lofchie, a member of the Castellammare Mesa Home Owners Assn.
The controversy is shining a light on the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, a controversial branch of Orthodox, Hasidic Judaism. Chabad is an acronym from the Hebrew for wisdom, understanding and knowledge.
Many mainstream Jews regard the movement's outreach as evangelizing, a practice they frown upon. In California, Chabad is perhaps best identified with its annual star-studded telethon, which raises money for charities.
Chabad is also known for zoning conflicts with neighbors as rabbis seek to establish gathering spots -- known as Chabad houses -- in residential areas. Over the years, zoning battles have raged in Florida, New York and New Jersey.
With the Getty road and Bellino effectively out of the picture, Cunin, 38, said Chabad is seeking permission from Mormon Church officials in Salt Lake City to use the Los Liones church parking lot. "We're very hopeful, and we believe that our access will be through the church parking lot," he said.
Keith Atkinson, West Coast spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said "the common practice of the church is not to encumber church property."
"We want to be good neighbors and certainly help other faith groups where we can, but we need to be sensitive to all of the neighbors," Atkinson said.
Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl met Friday with Cunin and got his assurance that Chabad would follow the city's conditional-use permit process.
The school would also be required to have a coastal development permit, said Jack Ainsworth, deputy director of the California Coastal Commission. The panel is taking about six months to process applications, Ainsworth said.
Chabad, which will be leaving Temescal Gateway Park in June, has said it plans a September opening for the preschool, with as many as 70 children.
The school isn't the only issue causing friction. A couple of miles east of Los Liones Canyon, Cunin is embroiled in a controversy with neighbors over plans to dramatically enlarge his house.
Cunin and his wife, Zisi, have seven children. And that, he says, is why they are seeking to expand their residence on Bestor Boulevard, in an area of the Palisades known as the Alphabet Streets. Neighbors say the current house is 1,698 square feet.
The Cunins, who regularly welcome members of their group to the house, intend to enlarge it to about 8,400 square feet. About 6,300 square feet would be above ground, with the rest a basement. The above-ground portion would be 47% larger than allowed under neighborhood rules, opponents contend.
The Pacific Palisades Civic League, which reviews architectural plans for new construction and remodels, has been talking with Cunin, who has already secured city permits. The league's opinions are not binding, but its board is pressuring the rabbi to abide by neighborhood guidelines.
"We hope to resolve this matter with the homeowner through discussion," the board said in a statement to the Palisadian-Post, "but if that fails, we are looking at our litigation options."