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Neighbors Challenge School Expansion Plan

Education: Private institution in Granada Hills seeks to move across the street to accommodate 400 more students. Residents object to added traffic.

January 03, 2002|MASSIE RITSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A private school's expansion plan gets a failing grade from the campus' Granada Hills neighbors, who say they will oppose it at a public hearing next week.

Hillcrest Christian School has tried for three years to move its high school to a five-acre lot across the street from its campus, which houses 800 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Hillcrest wants to add 400 students, but, with three other schools in the neighborhood, residents say their streets cannot take more traffic.

"This is not some little bit of construction. This is an entire campus," said Joy Ming, co-president of a neighborhood association that is holding a meeting tonight to discuss Hillcrest's proposal. The meeting will begin at 7 at St. Euphrasia Elementary School on Mayerling Street.

On Jan. 11, some of the 300 residents who have signed a petition opposing Hillcrest's project will attend a zoning hearing at Airtel Plaza Hotel in Van Nuys to try to block the plan. To rally its own supporters to attend, the school has given students and teachers that day off.

"It's very important that the school be put here [northwest corner of Rinaldi Street and Shoshone Avenue]," said Rick Donnelly, Hillcrest's development director.

Hillcrest's battle is one that private institutions often encounter. Whether the schools want to expand or renovate, neighbors object over traffic, noise and other concerns. Public schools usually avoid such obstacles, but private schools operate under zoning laws that apply to businesses and can be tied up in the permit process for years.

If Hillcrest were not a $4,000-a-year private school, residents might not be so concerned, said the neighborhood association's other president, Susan Tipton.

"If it were a public school, all my neighborhood kids would have the option of going. It would benefit everyone," she said. Hillcrest, she added, "is something that is a private venture for people who have a specific interest, want a specific type of education and have the money to pay for it. It is not a public service."

Not surprisingly, Hillcrest sees itself differently. The nonprofit Christian school does serve families who live nearby, Donnelly said.

"The local community does want a choice in education, and it's obvious by the enrollment," he said.

Hillcrest's student body has grown sharply in the most recent of its 25 years and last year hit 800, the ceiling set by the school's zoning permit.

"We have waiting lists," Donnelly said.

The school has revised its plans several times.

"I don't think that there's anything outrageous about the points they are making," he said. "On the other hand, we feel we have mitigated every one of those in accordance with what's required."

The neighbors say the school can do more by shrinking the 75,000 square feet of buildings it wants to construct and adding parking spaces in its lots, or abandon its plan for a second campus.

"It's too much school for the site," Tipton said. "They're cramming it in and cramming it down our throats."

Her group of neighbors would like Los Angeles City Councilman Hal Bernson, who represents the area, to join them in opposing the expansion. Bernson, who was out of town Wednesday, has not taken a position but has followed the proposal through the permit process, his spokesman said.

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