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Christian School Proposal Still Has a Prayer

By Anita Varghese
Staff Writer

July 24 -- Despite expressing emotional support, the Planning Commission last week placed more importance on facts and figures than on its faith that the Lighthouse Christian Academy could run a high school without the code-required parking.

The commission last Wednesday voted to continue for further discussion a conditional use permit (CUP) and variance to allow the church -- a member of the Foursquare Gospel Christian Fellowship -- to operate a private high school on its property at 1420 and 1424 Yale Street.

“I have never decided to vote for or against a project solely on the basis of emotional grounds,” said Commissioner Julie Lopez Dad. “We have set up certain standards and rules that apply to everyone.

“I don’t think it will be difficult to get the kinds of information we are asking,” Lopez Dad said. “There is a nebulous quality here and we would like to have some firmer ground for the decisions we make.”

The decision to continue the CUP and variance process and seek a more complete and detailed application from the church came after an emotional plea to the commission by church officials.

“Our current location is an example of not having the best facilities, but we are grateful to have it and have sacrificed greatly to purchase it,” said associate pastor Harrison Sommer. “We know that we have a responsibility to our neighbors to keep the noise and traffic down and under control.”

Sommer’s sentiments were accompanied by similar statements from the church’s land use attorney, pastor and school principal George Neos and an army of past and present academy students.

The church established the academy without City approval approximately eight years ago to provide a four-year secondary education in addition to a childcare center already operating at the site.

After the academy invited the Santa Monica Fire Department and City building and safety inspectors to assess the site in January and February as part of an International Christian Accreditation Association process, the City determined that the school building did not meet all safety codes pertinent to high school use and the existing CUP does not allow high school use.

Because the property is located in a residential district, a CUP is required to establish or expand a place of worship, child daycare center or private school.

As documented in the property history, use of the property for worship services and related Sunday school and parsonage was approved by the City in 1968.

Two additional CUPs have been approved to allow the Sunday school building and yard behind the parsonage to be used for childcare.

The current CUP application was submitted under protest. The applicant contends the academy should be exempt from CUP or variance requirements because high school use is a component of a “lawfully established, but non-conforming place of worship.”

Lighthouse Church officials and its lawyers also contend that high school use is not a modified or intensified use of the Sunday school building and that the City may not impose any regulation or condition that would impose a substantial burden on religious exercise.

“We have received very few complaints based on the current (but improperly used) agreement, which apparently means they have been good neighbors,” said Bruce Leach, an associate City planner.

“Because of this, staff has provided conditions we feel address the concerns and allows them to operate in a reasonable manner while protecting the residential neighborhood,” he said.

Staff recommended 27 conditions of approval, including prohibiting heavy use of the high school and sanctuary at the same time, limiting the number of staff-related vehicles on the site, constructing a sidewalk adjacent to an alleyway leading up to school building, limiting total enrollment to 65 students and trimming a hedge adjacent to improve alley traffic flow.

Lighthouse Church desires to enroll as many as 100 students at the academy with 11 teachers and support staff.

The academy has operated with five to seven teachers and support staff on site, with an enrollment of between 65 and 75 students, according to church officials. Special subject teachers are only on site when they teach their subject matter, Neos said.

Lighthouse Christian Academy primarily occupies the second floor of an annex building, with four traditional classrooms, a computer lab and a ground floor weight room. In addition to religious education and worship services, the sanctuary is also used for limited classes.

A properly permitted childcare/high school campus requires 77 parking spaces. A total of 12 spaces that meet City standards are provided in the CUP proposal, six of which are a tandem configuration.

If the variance was also approved, the number of parking spaces required for the existing church and child daycare center would be reduced from 14 to 12 spaces.

“There is no way I am going to prioritize parking over the mission of this school,” said Commissioner Terry O’Day. “What this school is doing is impressive, and it is important in our community to have small schools and small class sizes.

“I went to a private religious high school and like some of the students here, my family was not able to pay the tuition and the school waived it,” O’Day said. “In fact, one of my chemistry teachers gave our family a car since we didn’t have one at the time.”

However, the Planning Commission concluded that the Lighthouse Church did not provide a detailed site plan, parking plan or student drop-off/pick-up plan to allow a thorough analysis by staff.

While increasing education and childcare resources are desirable, commissioners were concerned that the current application does not present a clear understanding of all issues to ensure the academy and childcare center can operate at the same hours without impacts to the surrounding neighborhood.


“I have never decided to vote for or against a project solely on the basis of emotional grounds.” Julie Lopez Dad


“We know that we have a responsibility to our neighbors to keep the noise and traffic down and under control.” Harrison Sommer


“We have received very few complaints based on the current (but improperly used) agreement, which apparently means they have been good neighbors.” Bruce Leach


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