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April 28, 2010

Heschel West lets go of land, but plans to grow

http://www.jewishjournal.com/tribe/article/heschel_west_lets_go_of_land_but_plans_to_grow_20100428

Photo by Dan Kacvinski

Photo by Dan Kacvinski

“Heschel West Day School is continuing to thrive and make good strategic decisions. One of them is to no longer pursue a capital project,” said Head of School Tami Weiser, referring to a campaign launched in 2008.

In March, the 72 acres that Heschel West families purchased in 1997 for a permanent campus were sold at auction to the city of Agoura Hills for nearly one-third of the original purchase price of $1.6 million.

The sale brings a decade-long dispute between Heschel West, Old Agoura residents and the city of Agoura Hills to an end. Weiser says her focus now is to bolster student enrollment, which she hopes will be helped with the addition of a preschool in September.

“We’re going to stay here and continue to grow this site. There is a niche for Jewish education in the Conejo Valley,” she said.

Founded in 1994 with 14 kindergarten students, Heschel West today is a combination of permanent and modular buildings with an enrollment of 118 students and a capacity for 260. The Blue Ribbon school, located off the 101 Freeway at Liberty Canyon in Agoura Hills, had 160 students in fall 2008. Heschel West is nondenominational in its approach, but Weiser prefers to call the day school “pluralistic,” because it includes students at all levels of Jewish observance and serves kosher food.

For the past decade, Heschel West had plans to build a permanent campus nearby that would accommodate up to 750 elementary and middle school students on 72 acres of rural/residential land in unincorporated L.A. County, adjacent to Old Agoura. The site, north of the 101 Freeway and east of Chesebro Road, would have included nine buildings on 21 acres, about 230 parking spaces and sports fields. But the property became the focus of a fierce turf war between the Jewish day school and the Old Agoura Homeowner’s Association (OAHA), which adamantly opposed the project over concerns about traffic and the overall impact on their equestrian way of life.

L.A. County approved the Heschel West project in 2007 and gave the school and opponents a year to work out their differences with OAHA and the city of Agoura Hills. Everything came to a head at a dramatic standing-room-only meeting in November 2008 at Agoura Hills City Hall. That night the city council approved a plan by a vote of 4 to1 that would require the school to help finance the widening of the Chesebro Road freeway overpass to mitigate expected traffic issues.

About 30 residents spoke out publicly against the proposed development at the meeting, with some accusing the city of capitulating to the will of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, including Zev Yaroslavsky, whose district includes the Agoura Hills area.

Jess Thomas, president of OAHA at the time, accused Yaroslavsky of “abuse,” and “imposing his personal will on the approval process.”

“These are good people; I love Jess Thomas. I think he is a hero of the environment. But we made it clear years ago that the North Area Plan allows for a school on this property, and that if a school could be built that is compatible with the plan, we were going to approve it,” the supervisor said in an interview at the time.

In a 2008 interview with The Jewish Journal, Rick Wentz, then a Heschel West board member, said the school spent more than $2 million on consultants, studies and entitlements. And among the conditions Heschel West faced in its effort to construct the school was a $3.5 million contribution for traffic mitigation.

Heschel West had won the right to build its new school, but the downturn in the economy and a declining enrollment impacted its ability to move forward.

“It was not financially feasible for us to continue developing a property,” Weiser said.

In March, the land was sold at auction to the City of Agoura Hills for $630,000. City Manager Greg Ramirez was the only bidder on the property.

Despite the acrimony, Weiser harbors no resentment toward anyone in the community who opposed Heschel West’s plans, several of whom are Jewish.

“I don’t believe anti-Semitism played a role in this conflict,” she said.

The future of the 72-acre site is still uncertain. While local environmental group Save Open Space is hopeful the city will set aside the land as a wildlife corridor property, the city of Agoura Hills is also considering limited development.

“The city has always maintained that the property is best suited for a residential development in which it is zoned, with roughly a maximum of 15 homes,” Ramirez said.

Weiser says there has been some confusion over the sale of the property versus the continuation of Heschel West as a day school. She says the school, which recently dedicated its high-tech Ellie and Mark Lainer Library, isn’t going anywhere. 

“I didn’t like hearing about the demise of our school,” Weiser said. “It was the site, not our school.”

Looking back on the difficult battle, she said, “It was a challenging time, but we came out of it as a stronger community.”

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