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Judge OKs Synagogue Construction


A federal judge ruled Monday that construction may resume on a synagogue in Hancock Park, dealing the city a setback in a long-running legal battle that has pitted Los Angeles' zoning powers against an Orthodox Jewish congregation's religious rights.

City officials issued a cease-and-desist order last month after neighbors complained about Rabbi Chaim Rubin's plans to replace a 3,700-square-foot property housing Congregation Etz Chaim at 3rd Street and Highland Avenue with a structure more than twice its size. Most of the house had been demolished when the work was ordered stopped.

Neighborhood homeowners, some of whom have opposed the congregation's activities for decades, said the work appeared to violate a 2001 federal court settlement between the congregation and the city to maintain the property as a residence in exchange for permission to conduct limited religious services in a residential zone.

In response, the congregation asked U.S. District Judge Harry L. Hupp, who has presided over the group's lawsuit against the city, to lift the stop-work order, arguing that it had abided by a city-issued permit to renovate and enlarge the house.

Susan Azad, a lawyer for Congregation Etz Chaim, told the judge Monday that the city has been bending to the political will of the Hancock Park Homeowners' Assn.

Deputy City Atty. Tayo Popoola denied that charge, saying the city is only trying to protect its interests and uphold zoning laws.

"We go by the law and the facts," Popoola said in an interview after Monday's court hearing. "As far as our office is concerned, political considerations are not involved.

"If the city were responding to pressure from the homeowners' association, we wouldn't have signed the [2001 federal] settlement agreement in the first place," he said.

Popoola argued in court that the congregation had tried to circumvent the agreement by keeping the city attorney's office in the dark so that it could build what amounts to a "mansion" that would attract "gawkers and would-be worshippers."

The plans were submitted to the city Department of Building and Safety, which issued a permit for the work.

The judge said Monday the congregation was not obligated to give separate notice to the city attorney's office. It would have been up to building and safety officials to consult with city counsel if there was a question about whether the plans were in violation of the settlement, he said.

"Yes, you will have a larger building than you thought you would," Hupp said to Popoola, "but it's a building that you approved."

The city recently announced plans to inspect Rubin's residence on nearby June Street, where he has been holding services since the demolition work on the Highland Avenue site began.

Neighbors have complained about traffic and noise at the June Street house, in which Rubin's father held services for his small congregation for 25 years.

Hupp granted a request by the congregation's lawyers last week to halt the inspection.

But Hupp said Monday he will give the city an opportunity to argue that he does not have jurisdiction over its actions involving the June Street house, the use of which is not covered under the 2001 settlement.

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