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Board Again Picks La Cresta Campus for Special School

October 17, 1985|BOB WILLIAMS | Times Staff Writer

For the second time in a year, the Palos Verdes Peninsula school board has knocked on the door of Rolling Hills, the South Bay's most exclusive community, seeking admittance for the district's continuation high school.

Officials of the gated city said they would have to meet and confer with their lawyers before responding to the board's renewed choice of their community as a permanent home for the special school for teen-agers, called Rancho del Mar.

But one of the city's legal advisers indicated at a board meeting on Monday night that the second knock would not be any more welcome than the first was.

Rochelle Browne, the Los Angeles attorney who persuaded a judge to block the first effort last year by pointing out legal errors in the district's environmental report, told the board that she can find plenty of flaws in its latest documents.

Required by Law

The complex report is required by state law when a public agency undertakes a project--in this case, converting the closed La Cresta elementary campus to a high school--that may affect the surrounding environment.

In a telephone interview after the board voted unanimously for La Cresta, Browne said she has no idea yet how Rolling Hills will react. But if the city chooses to go to court again, she said, it will have "adequate legal grounds" to challenge the decision.

Trustees said they picked the La Cresta site over a second alternative, the closed Margate Intermediate School in Palos Verdes Estates, because it is more centrally located on the Peninsula and has better access.

Board President Martin S. Dodell said La Cresta also has a "relatively private setting"--it is located outside the walls of Rolling Hills but within the city limits--and thus will have less impact on its neighbors than it might at Margate, where houses are close to the school.

In Temporary Quarters

Rancho del Mar has been operating in makeshift quarters on the Rolling Hills High School campus in Rolling Hills Estates since the fall on 1984, when a Superior Court judge barred the continuation classes from La Cresta.

However, the judge upheld the school system's right under state law to override zoning restrictions imposed by Rolling Hills at La Cresta.

Dodell expressed relief that the long-awaited decision had been reached, a feeling shared by residents of Palos Verdes Estates who had fought against locating the continuation school at Margate.

Some residents there, as in Rolling Hills, had contended that the school would have an adverse effect on traffic, safety and property values if it were put in their neighborhood.

"We're pleased by the decision," said Mayor James Kinney, whose city passed an emergency zoning ordinance that restricts any changes in the use of Margate. "We look forward to cooperating with the district in finding an appropriate use for the school."

Restrictions Prevent Sale

Deed restrictions prevent the sale of Margate, but Trustee Ann Hinchliffe said the "financially stressed" district can earn about $125,000 a year by leasing the property.

Before the decision, Dodell and other school officials said they expected to be sued no matter which site was chosen. But after spending $200,000 on attorneys and consultants in the effort to set up a separate campus for Rancho del Mar, the officials said they are confident that the district can prevail over any new legal obstacles that may be raised by Rolling Hills.

However, decisions on how to deal with the problem will fall to the new board that will be installed after elections on Nov. 5. And its members--at least three will be newcomers--may not be as willing to spend additional money to achieve a goal set by the outgoing trustees.

Even the current board's commitment to a separate campus, which publicly hardened during months of bitter controversy, appeared to waver at the Monday meeting when outgoing Trustee Hinchliffe expressed doubts about continuing the battle.

Surprised Board

Hinchliffe, who chose not to run for reelection, told the startled board and audience that the district "cannot afford the luxury" of a separate campus, even though it may be the best setting for students who cannot function successfully in a regular school environment.

When she found no support for her views, however, Hinchliffe joined in the vote to move the school to La Cresta at the beginning of the spring semester in February.

The trustees also discussed the possibility of eventually selling La Cresta to a developer to ease the district's financial problems. But if the new board decides to follow through on that plan, it would have to gain the cooperation of Rolling Hills to get a good price.

The 24-acre site was appraised recently at a disappointingly low $1.8 million, but real estate agents believe that if Rolling Hills grants zoning changes favorable to developers, the price would be greatly enhanced.

"Since the city controls La Cresta's fair market value, there's an opportunity for a nice compromise," said one real estate dealer, who requested anonymity. "The district gets a good deal on its property and maybe the city has to take the school for a year or two at most."

He said the new board will have to resolve the apparent contradiction between talk of selling La Cresta and its current designation as a "permanent" home for continuation students.

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