ALTADENA — The Church of Scientology has backed out of an agreement to purchase a 198-acre former hospital complex in the Altadena foothills, ending three months of controversy in which some local residents charged that the group was a cult seeking to establish a base of operations here.
Scientology officials last week withdrew their application for a conditional-use permit for the former LaVina Hospital complex. In a letter to the county's Regional Planning Commission, the group said it had found another site more suitable for its purposes. A Scientology spokesman refused to confirm or deny reports that the new site is in Santa Barbara.
Cost of Maintenance
The group also said the costs of maintaining the complex during the lengthy escrow proceedings and the need for extensive renovations were reasons for withdrawing the application. Scientology officials acknowledged that the group had already spent nearly $200,000 maintaining the property while it sought a conditional-use permit needed to complete the escrow.
Altadena community leaders and residents--who had opposed the group's presence in their unincorporated community--claimed victory. They said a vote by the Altadena Town Council in July asking that the Planning Commission deny the group's request for a conditional-use permit was a strong message that the group was not welcome in Altadena.
"I talked with many people in the community and there is a great sense of relief," said Cue MacKenzie, a 30-year resident of Altadena who opposed the group's plans. "It was something that was hanging over our heads. We didn't feel this was the right place for that group. We're very happy."
During two public hearings on the issue in June, the group told residents that it would name the complex the "Church of Spiritual Technology" and would use it to train and house ministers and safeguard the writings and taped lectures of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
But Frank Bridal, the chairman of the Town Council, said many residents were wary of the group's intentions. At one public hearing, residents came armed with books and articles alleging that Scientology is a nationwide cult operating under the guise of a religion.
Tax Court Decision
Residents referred to a U.S. Tax Court decision last September in which the California branch of the Church of Scientology had to pay $1.4 million in back taxes and penalties because it had "made a business of selling religion."
"I think there was a great unease among many citizens as to the future use of the property," Bridal said. "Some people had said they feared the complex would become the 'world headquarters' of the Church of Scientology.
"There was a deep mistrust on the part of many citizens. It scared the hell out of a lot of people."
Shirley Young, a spokesman for the group, said community opposition did not play a part in the group's decision to back out of a purchase agreement with Huntington Memorial Hospital of Pasadena, which owns the complex.
"For several months we have been looking at different pieces of property, and now we have found three sites which are more suited to our purposes," Young said. "Community opposition had nothing to do with it.
'Received 140 Letters'
"In fact, we received 140 letters from the community supporting us. A small amount were from residents who were Scientologists, but many others were just from the community."
Young acknowledged that the group had paid the hospital $20,000 a month since January to maintain the property while it sought the conditional-use permit. She said she did not consider the expense a waste.
"The money was put forth because we thought LaVina was the best place at the time," she said "Many companies and different organizations have done the same thing while attempting to find a place that is suitable."
Young would not comment on a report that group members were considering a site in Santa Barbara.
"We want to keep that to ourselves until negotiations are completed," she said. "We have three sites in mind and each and every one is being looked at closely."