The fate of a four-acre Northridge lot depends on bull sperm. If enough was generated there in the 1940s, the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission will be more likely to grant neighbors' wishes and designate the property a historic monument, blocking for at least a year construction of a 600-member church on the site, a commission spokeswoman said.
But opponents say the effort to preserve the farm-like lot in the 17400 block of Roscoe Boulevard is similar to a nationally mocked campaign to block a mini-mall by declaring a Studio City carwash a cultural monument.
"I don't call it historical, I call it hysterical," said one of the owners of the Northridge property, who asked not to be identified.
"There is no . . . historic significance," agreed City Councilman Hal Bernson in a Feb. 1 letter to the cultural commission. "I would urge denial of the application."
The commission's staff agreed, but the panel postponed its decision until Feb. 17 to give proponents a chance to present evidence showing that a Hereford bull named "Sugwas Feudal," who was imported to the site from England in 1946 when the land was a ranch, made a significant contribution to the meatpacking industry by strengthening the breed, said commission spokeswoman Nancy Fernandez.
"It got down to just how important these cattle were to the broad cultural, political, economic or social history of the nation, state or community," Fernandez said.
Proponents say they are collecting more information about Hereford breeding on the site, as well as the property's historical significance as one of the last unsubdivided ranch lots in once-rural Northridge.
"We see this as a historical center and museum for the rural history of the area, and we're trying to find a preservation-minded buyer," said Anne Heidsick, an elementary school teacher who lives next door to the property in a converted barn on a one-acre lot.
The commission found itself on the horns of this dilemma after the death last year of Adeline Anderson, owner of the property for more than 30 years. Anderson's family in Seattle inherited the land, which contains more than 170 trees, a log barn and a 1939 ranch house designed by CSUN architect Ulysses Floyd Rible.
The property went into probate, and the St. Athansius Coptic Orthodox Church of Arleta expressed interest in buying it for about $1.1 million and building a church there, if it could get a conditional use permit from the city, according to planning department documents. Church officials could not be reached for comment.
Nearby residents said they originally felt comfortable about having the church as a neighbor. But when they learned the church plans to build a 40,500-square-foot chapel with a 600-seat sanctuary and 205 parking spaces, neighbors dubbed it the "Taj Mahal" and began a two-pronged campaign against it.
On one front, they are fighting the church's request for a conditional-use permit to operate, collecting 450 signatures on a petition to deny the permit. On the other, they are seeking historic monument status for the property, which would prevent demolition of the ranch house and barn for at least a year.
So far, they are losing.
Last month, a city zoning administrator granted the church's permit request for a two-year period, but imposed 22 conditions, including a ban on outdoor festivals and street parking. The neighbors have appealed the decision to the Board of Zoning Appeals, but no hearing date has been set.
Heidsick is hopeful that the cultural heritage commission will recognize the historic value of the site at the final hearing later this month. She scoffs at critics who say the effort is simply a tactic to prevent the church from moving in.
"If I merely wanted to fight the church, there are more expedient ways to do it," she said. "What happened is that it suddenly dawned on me that there was something very special about the property."