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New School Is a Tough Sell in Old Agoura

Residents say proposed Jewish campus would add traffic and noise and harm the tranquillity.

November 25, 2002|Wendy Thermos | Times Staff Writer

As a reminder that she lives in a special niche of suburban Los Angeles, Donna Flint need only step onto her porch at night and gaze up at the inky sky.

"It's pitch-black because we have no street lights here," said Flint, a resident of Old Agoura, an equestrian hamlet nestled among rolling hills. "You can see all the stars. People don't have that in the city."

Rick Wentz thinks Old Agoura is special too. He thinks its quiet, rural setting would make an ideal location for a new Jewish day school. "We view this as the perfect place for a school," said Wentz, executive vice president of the Heschel West School's board of directors. "We looked for three or four years to find this site."

But the otherwise laid-back agricultural community is up in arms over plans to relocate the school on a 73-acre parcel next to the southeast tip of Old Agoura, a mile west of its current site.

"I'm going to lose my view, we're going to have lights shining all night, and the traffic's going to be really horrible," Flint said.

The battle lines were drawn last week when the school released a draft environmental impact report on the proposed 750-student campus, while the Old Agoura Homeowners Assn. announced that it has hired land-use attorney Frank Angel to fight the development plan.

Wentz hopes the opposition will subside once residents of Old Agoura, a 409-home community that is part of the city of Agoura Hills, have studied the school's plan.

"We'd be a great neighbor," he said. "We are totally willing to compromise. So far, their only position has been 'go somewhere else.' "

Residents of Old Agoura -- a mix of seniors and younger, wealthy people on large lots -- have a reputation for strongly opposing changes that threaten their tranquil surroundings.

At least three developers have sought to build homes on the vacant Heschel parcel in recent years but quickly backed away in the face of formidable opposition. School officials bought the site because it is the center of Heschel West's future student population.

According to the project's environmental report, the Conejo Valley area has one of the fastest-growing Jewish populations in North America. The current school, in leased quarters, is attended by students through the fifth grade, but the new campus would include preschool through the eighth grade.

"It is a very progressive, humanistic day school," Wentz said.

Both sides say there's no indication of anti-Semitism behind the opposition. "We would just as soon leave the word 'Jewish' out of it," said Jess Thomas, president of the homeowners association and a 32-year resident.

One Jewish resident blames the opposition on misinformation. "I think there's a lot of fear and confusion about what our project is and what it's going to do to the neighborhood," said Sandy Isaacson, an Old Agoura resident with three children attending Heschel West. "I think that we would be the best neighbor that they could ever hope for."

Nonetheless, Thomas has "a drawer full of checks" from neighbors who have contributed to the legal fund to oppose the school.

"Some of our folks feel this school would be the beginning of the end," Thomas said. "They moved here for a quiet, peaceful place to raise their kids and animals. The school would have security lights, and there would be noise from the kids. It would just be completely out of place."

The most often cited complaint is the estimated 2,600 car trips that the school would generate at the Chesebro Road-Ventura Freeway interchange. Locals already gripe about traffic, particularly since Agoura High School is on the western border of Old Agoura. The main east-west byway, Driver Avenue, is choked with vehicles when the school day starts and ends.

"We won't be able to get in or out," Thomas said.

The environmental report concludes that increased traffic from the new school could be eliminated with road widening, left-turn lanes and traffic signals, which would be partly or entirely funded by Heschel.

"With those steps, the traffic situation will be better, not worse," Wentz said.

Thomas is not persuaded. "What they do is interrupt the flow of traffic, so that it adds to the congestion. They don't increase the flow."

With the proposed site just outside the city limits on unincorporated Los Angeles County land, Old Agoura and Agoura Hills residents have no final say on the project.

The first public hearing is scheduled Dec. 18, when the county Regional Planning Commission will examine the draft environmental impact report.

"The document analyzes all the facts," Wentz said, adding that he hopes to prove that the school "won't have the negative impacts that the homeowners fear."

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