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Ventura County

School's Moving Plans at a Standstill


When Ventura County Christian School was offered the opportunity to lease the former Washington Elementary School, a venerable campus in midtown Ventura, administrators thought their prayers had been answered.

They agreed to refurbish the dilapidated campus for reduced rent. But when the repair tab turned out to be a daunting figure, the school erected portable classrooms at the Macmillan Street site for temporary use, planning to chip away at a list of repairs as they raised funds.

Now, angered by the gray portables looming over their property, a few neighbors have complained to the city. And the city and the Ventura Unified School District agree that the school failed to obtain necessary permits for the portables and other renovations, a position that Ventura County Christian disputes.

For the foreseeable future, the school remains in its cramped quarters across the street at Grace Church, and renovations have stopped at Washington.

Ventura Christian has had three homes in its nine-year existence, and throughout that time, Lisa Darby, a founding member of the school, prayed that the Washington site would become available.

Washington, built in 1925 and vacant for about 15 years, had become a magnet for the homeless, drug users and vandals.

In late 1999, Ventura Christian signed a 20-year lease with Ventura Unified School District.

Since then, school workers and volunteers have repainted Washington's exterior, erected a fence around the property, replaced the windows, leveled the sports field and re-roofed and renovated the auditorium, a free-standing building that includes space for the cafeteria.

But then came the setbacks.

The Repair Bills Begin Mounting

The school discovered it would cost an estimated $7 million to make the main building structurally sound--a daunting sum to an institution with only 70 students.

Still, Ventura County Christian decided it could open at the new site by using portables.

"Even the trailers are a big step up for us," said Keith Letus, a 2001 graduate of the private school. "The classrooms are twice as big and have windows and air-conditioning."

But neighbors say they weren't properly informed about the portable classrooms because the permit process wasn't followed.

"We were on vacation in September and we came back and they were there," said Robert Sales, who lives on San Nicholas Street, next to Washington. The raised land under the portables now towers over his retaining wall, sparking concerns about how runoff might affect his yard.

"At first we thought they had just put the portables there haphazardly" and were going to move them, said neighbor Paul Kermoyan, who works as a community developer with the city of Carpinteria. But when he realized that the school planned to place the buildings just 13 feet from his property for a number of years, he alerted Ventura officials.

Darby maintains that the neighbors were invited to meetings to discuss the placement of the portables, but that they chose not to attend.

But Kermoyan said that the school's failure to apply for a permit effectively removed him from the process.

The city cited the school for the grading and placement of the portables and issued a stop-work order.

"If it wants to operate a private school, it needs a use permit from the city," City Atty. Robert Boehm said. "We're encouraging them to do what the law requires."

The process, he said, would involve the school applying for a conditional use permit, followed by an open hearing, before a decision could be handed down by the city's planning director.

But the school's lawyer, Dan Carobini, thinks the process would be more involved than that. "The process is very burdensome," he said. "There are high fees that have to be paid and conditions the city could impose," such as traffic and parking mitigation plans.

"We don't know how many hoops we're going to have to jump through," Darby said, arguing that other private entities on public property have not been forced to get permits. "We're getting discriminated against and we're being harassed."

City officials denied her allegations.

While school districts typically are exempt from municipal rules regarding land use and only have to abide by state standards, private schools--even those on public school property--are not, Boehm said.

Carobini says the school still is examining the law, including the federal Religious Land Use Act, to determine whose rules they have to follow.

Other neighbors are happy to see the scarred building being restored and the vandalism abated.

"I've lived here two years and all I've seen are vandals and hoodlums," said Jim MacDonald, who lives on Santa Barbara Street. "What we've seen so far, the cleanup, has been great. It's really exciting to see it renovated."

Neighbors Willing to Compromise

At Kermoyan's home, bougainvilleas proliferate atop the fence separating his property from the school but doesn't block views of the structures next door.

Still, he is not against Ventura County Christian moving in. He and his neighbor, Sales, said they would be happy if the school simply moved the portables away from their property, something that Darby says the school will not do for a number of reasons.

"We're willing to compromise," said Sales, who was recently told that the proximity of the portables would subtract $10,000 from his home's value. "They have no consideration. They feel as if they're the priority in the neighborhood."

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