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Simi church denies end run

Cornerstone ignites controversy when it suggests it could build on protected land without a public vote.

June 22, 2007|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Leaders of a Simi Valley church sought Thursday to quell what they said was a "misunderstanding" about the church's plans to build a sprawling new compound in protected open space without first seeking voter approval.

Project manager Rick Parkinson acknowledged that Cornerstone Community Church cited a potential exemption from a public vote in its initial filing with the Ventura County Planning Department. The proposed development site is on county land at the western end of Simi Valley.

When news of the project was made public this week, the church received a flurry of calls from people upset that it might be trying to circumvent Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources, the county's growth-control law, Parkinson said.

But church leaders have no intent to skirt a vote if county planners determine that SOAR requires one, Parkinson said.

"We've only suggested that the county consider an exemption and see if it applies," Parkinson said. "If this needs to go through the voter-approval process, we will do that. We don't want a fight."

In plans submitted to the county planning department last week, Cornerstone said it wanted to build a Mission-style church, a bible college, a 5,000-seat outdoor amphitheater and athletic fields on 140 acres of hilly scrubland south of Tierra Rejada Road.

Additionally, a 100,000-square-foot building would be constructed as the new home of Children's Hunger Fund, a nonprofit now based in Pacoima. Eighty acres, or about 60% of the land, would remain as open space, the filing states.

Development on the land, at the eastern edge of the Tierra Rejada greenbelt, is restricted by zoning regulations and the county's SOAR law. The latter requires a public vote when a development is proposed on lands zoned as open space.

In its filing, however, the church suggested it might be exempt from a vote under a federal law passed in 2000. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act protects houses of worship from discrimination in land-use laws, church leaders wrote.

They noted that the nearby Ronald Reagan Presidential Library received approval for construction in the protected greenbelt. To treat a church differently would be to put it in "less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution," the filing states.

The presidential library was built before the SOAR laws were approved by voters beginning in 1995. But Parkinson said improvements to the library, such as the addition of the Air Force One Pavilion, occurred after SOAR.

"The Reagan library has a sewer connection [with the city of Simi Valley] by a private agreement," he said. "Can you tell a church they can't do the same? We don't know."

The religious land-use act has prompted a flurry of disputes across the nation since President Clinton signed it into law. Churches, temples and mosques say it protects them from onerous approval processes and neighbors who seek to keep them out.

At the same time, cities are finding that the law has undermined their right to zone their communities.

In Ventura County, the Cornerstone Church's application is the first that cited the federal statute, officials said.

County Planning Director Kim Rodriguez said the county has 30 days to let the church know whether its application is complete. She said colleges are generally permitted in open space and are exempt from a SOAR vote. But construction of a church and other buildings could trigger a vote, she said.

"We'll have to look at the general plan and zoning policy on those uses," she said.

Cornerstone was founded 13 years ago by Pastor Francis Chan, Parkinson said. The pastor was not available for comment Thursday.

The congregation has grown quickly to 4,000 members, he said. Church leaders founded a bible college that trains nearly 300 young adults for ministries around the world.

An expansion would allow them to hold outdoor services for 5,000 people on weekends, Parkinson said. A multipurpose room would hold 1,000 people and would be available to the community, he said.

"This is really meant to be a demonstration of giving back to the community," he said.

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