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New Campus for School Rejected

Education: Sierra Madre council votes down project, ending two-year debate over growth.

January 09, 2002|STEPHANIE CHAVEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The feisty little city of Sierra Madre--a San Gabriel Valley town without a traffic signal and devoid of fast-food drive-thrus--has issued its most recent no verdict, denying a Christian high school's request to build a new campus.

The City Council voted 3 to 1 against a long-studied proposal by Maranatha High School to build a campus on mountainside property once owned by city founder Nathaniel Carter.

While the vote ends a two-year debate--which included a campaign that sprouted hundreds of lawn signs on both sides of the issue--the high school's resolve to build on an 8.5-acre parcel of its 63 acres is not squashed.

Maranatha attorneys have already sent Sierra Madre a letter laying the groundwork for a legal challenge. They believe the denial, in part, deprives them of religious freedom under a powerful new federal law that is designed to protect religious institutions from zoning and historic landmark laws.

The land in question is zoned for houses. The school was seeking a zoning change from the city to build the campus, about 100,000 square feet of construction that would have included classrooms, a gymnasium, theater and playing fields.

The school, which scaled down its original proposal in light of community concerns, would have left the vast majority of the land as open space and allowed public access to hiking trails.

But in a resolution denying the zoning change, City Council members said the project would cause severe traffic problems at several key intersections and would make noise "much like an echo chamber" that would disturb the surrounding neighborhood.

The council also cited the removal of irreplaceable trees and the lack of adequate parking as additional reasons for denial.

"In my opinion, the traffic would have been particularly bad when dropping off students," said Councilman Doug Hayes, who voted no. "I voted for what is best for the property. And I still feel residential is best." Also voting no were Mayor Glenn Lambdin and Councilman Robert Stockly.

There is a growing movement in Sierra Madre to try to raise funds from government and conservancy sources to buy the land from Maranatha and preserve it as a park.

But the $4.5-million parcel is not for sale, said Principal John Rouse.

Maranatha is a strict prep school where students study the Bible along with academics. Its 20-year campus lease with the Pasadena Unified School District expires in September. The district plans to reclaim the campus for interim classroom space.

Rouse said Maranatha is looking for a temporary site for the fall, a difficult task because it does not want to move more than five miles away.

Councilman Bart Doyle cast the lone yes vote, saying that the school's plan to preserve open space was a good one for the city. Councilwoman Kris Miller-Fisher recused herself because she owns property nearby.

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