In support of the school's nature-based curriculum, Cunin, 38, believed he had found an ideal new location when he came upon an empty 3,000-square-foot former storage facility at the base of a hillside property. He tracked down the owner, longtime Pacific Palisades resident Gene Gladden, who agreed to lease the property to Chabad.
Cunin (photo) was making preparations to turn the site into a preschool, planning to open in September, when an attorney from the J. Paul Getty Trust sent a letter denying Chabad's right to access the property via the Getty Villa's service road.
Around the same time, members of the neighboring Castellammare Mesa Home Owners Association, which has 141 member families, began a flurry of e-mails and telephone exchanges questioning Chabad's right to access the property alternatively through Gladden's backyard off Bellino Drive and also raising concerns about other safety and noise issues.
Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl has become involved, as has the Palisades Mormon Church, to which Cunin turned with a request for access through the church's parking lot.
This might seem just an ordinary land-use dispute with, on one side, a preschool hoping to operate in a residential area -- which can be allowed with a conditional-use permit -- and on the other objections from neighbors who don't want increased noise and congestion. But there is a history of high-profile, contentious disputes in this neighborhood: The Getty weathered its own heated and drawn-out legal battle with local Pacific Palisades homeowner associations, which began in 1997 when it announced plans for an extensive renovation and expansion of the Getty Villa. The clash centered on plans for a outdoor amphitheater. The much-delayed opening of the Getty Villa didn't happen until January 2006, following years of negotiation with neighborhood associations.
Enter Chabad, an organization whose name is a Hebrew acronym meaning wisdom, understanding and knowledge, and which, as part of Chabad-Lubavitch is one of the largest sects of Orthodox Judaism worldwide. Known for its evangelical outreach and zeal, Chabad has its own history of controversy in many circles.
Rabbi Cunin had been successfully operating Palisades Jewish Early Childhood Center in various locations in Temescal Gateway Park without conflict since the preschool was founded in 2000. The school enrolls approximately 50 children, ages 2 to 5, who, Cunin said, come primarily from Pacific Palisades and other Westside locations and from all levels of religious observance.
Last year the Santa Monica Conservancy, which oversees the park, voted to end the lease of the Chabad preschool as well as that of the private Little Dolphins preschool, ruling that public park area should no longer be walled off for private endeavors.
On Jan. 29, 2008, Cunin signed a three-year lease with a 20-year option on the building owned by Gladden, which sits near the service entrance to the Getty Villa, next door to the Mormon Church and across the road from Topanga State Park. Cunin began making some of the necessary renovations to the property.
Everything went smoothly until April 2, when Getty Trust attorney Lori Fox informed Cunin that Chabad does not have the right to approach the building via a private Getty service road -- which Chabad disputes. As a result, Cunin said, Chabad officials, teachers and workmen began accessing the property through Gladden's driveway off Bellino Drive and down a steep stairway in Gladden's backyard.
Neighbors became aware of the activity, as well as of the building, which was newly painted inside and staged with small tables and chairs. An outdoor area now sported playground equipment to enable prospective parents and state inspectors to better visualize the future preschool. Cunin believes that many residents assumed, erroneously, the preschool was already open for business.
Homeowners began an exchange of e-mails, and one homeowner, whose child had attended the school, contacted Cunin to clarify the school's status. He assured her that he didn't plan to use Gladden's home as access for the school. She shared this information with the other neighbors.
Chabad's attorney Benjamin Reznik, a partner at Jeffer, Mangels, Butler and Marmaro, argues that the preschool location is "brilliant."
"It's a building that's safe and appropriate. It's got a nice, flat garden around for the kids to play outdoors, and it's got nice access: The parents can drive right up," Reznik said.
The Getty, however, sees the site differently. Getty attorney Fox sent a memorandum to area homeowner associations on May 9 summarizing the Getty's communications with Chabad and objections to the location.
"We have serious concerns about the proposed use of both the warehouse and access via our service road," Fox stated in the memo, emphasizing safety concerns for the children.
The dispute over use of the service road is not surprising, given its complicated history.
Access along the service road to the Getty guard booth, which sits just above the driveway to the Gladden building, uses an easement granted by the Mormon Church, which bought its three-acre property in 1970 from a private developer, according to David Lacy, who founded Senior Realty Advisors of Covina, and who has assisted Chabad in property acquisitions for more than a decade. It was originally a dirt road, which the Getty paved and later widened, as required for its renovation.
But Gladden was granted the necessary permits in 1981, he said, to construct a building on the lower part of his property for recreation and storage. He also received permission from the Getty to access the building via the service road. Gladden subsequently rented the building to the Getty for 25 years for storage purposes, a lease which ended approximately six months ago, according to Gladden.
Because Gladden has been allowed access to his building for the last 26 years and because the Getty has never revoked that right, Lacy believes that Gladden as well as Chabad, as his representatives, "has a legal right to a prescriptive easement" on that property.The Getty is disputing that right, and Fox's May 9 memo states, "The road is Getty property subject to, among other things, our conditional-use permit."
Another conflict involves whether or not Gladden's building -- the site of the new preschool -- sits on Getty-owned property. When Gladden constructed the building, according to Lacy, the Getty informed him that the boundary was "the fence." And an architectural drawing from that period shows Gladden's building 10 feet from "the fence."
However, a survey that the Getty conducted in 1999 as part of its expansion marks the boundary 13 feet inside what Gladden assumed was the property line, putting the building -- three feet along the building's entire length, on the side paralleling the service road -- on Getty property.
Still, whatever the case, the issue is resolvable, according to Reznik. "That building is a moveable, mobile building. What's the big deal?" he said.
Ideally, Cunin said, he would like to access the building through the parking lot of the Mormon Church, which is next door and which would entail merely creating a small gate in the already existing fence. Cunin's request, however, was turned down by church officials in Salt Lake City in an e-mail sent May 27, according to Keith Atkinson, West Coast spokesperson for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"It is not our practice to encumber our property to enable our neighbors to obtain conditional-use permits. It puts our property at a certain liability. It doesn't serve our members well and doesn't serve the neighbors well," Atkinson said.
And while stating that the Mormon Church prized its relationship with the Jewish community, Atkinson cited "a multiplicity of sensitivities" in the neighborhood.
Cunin is appealing to "higher levels" within the church. He is also hopeful that Chabad can create a partnership with the Getty.
At the same time, Cunin has given assurances that students will not enter through Gladden's property on Bellino Drive. "That never was our intention," he said. Still, Chabad staff, parents and workers have used it, and will continue to use it, until the Los Liones Drive entrance is secured, according to Cunin.
Kim Clary, president of the Castellammare Mesa Home Owners Association, said that neighbors are "greatly relieved" that access will not be through Bellino Drive. Still, the homeowners are concerned about increased noise, which Clary describes as "like a megaphone coming up" for neighbors who live on the ridge above Gladden's building.
The residents say they are also worried about increased traffic, especially at the already dangerously congested intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Los Liones Drive, where the Westside Waldorf School, which relocated to the south side of Sunset Boulevard in fall 2006, agreed to erect a traffic light.
"We don't really want a school in this neighborhood at all. We're worried about the safety of the kids," Clary said.
Area City Councilman Rosendahl has met with Cunin. He has also met with community members, assuring them that he sent a group of building inspectors to the location and that thus far Cunin has not required permits for any work that has been done. He also said that Cunin has assured him that he intends -- and has always intended -- to go through proper licensing and permitting processes.
"This is basically a school looking for a home," Rosendahl said, making clear that he is not taking a position. He said he sees his role as that of an "honest broker," ensuring that all parties feel empowered and heard as Chabad proceeds along what Rosendahl calls "the public, open and transparent process" of seeking a conditional-use permit.
Meanwhile, Palisades Jewish Early Childhood Center will hold its final day at the Temescal Gateway Park location on June 19. The six-week summer session, beginning July 1, is slated to take place, as it has every summer, at Palisades Elementary School.
Chabad remains open for enrollment. If necessary, Cunin said, he will find a temporary site to begin the fall session on Sept. 4, but he is hoping to have the permit process completed in time to use the new facility.
Gladden, the non-Jewish property owner, told Cunin that when the Getty's lease ended, he had been looking to use his building for a spiritual purpose.
"I told God, whoever needs it will come knocking," Gladden told Cunin the day that Cunin actually came knocking on his door, trying to find the building's owner.
"Every problem we have is an opportunity for growth," Gladden said in an interview. "I know that right will prevail, that everything will work out for everybody's good."
Cunin and students at the current preschool at Temescal Gateway Park. Photo by Jane Ulman