Since April, homeowners surrounding the school's proposed new site, as well as officials of the nearby Getty Villa and the Mormon Church, have expressed strong opposition to the relocation to a leased vacant building off Los Liones Drive. The building sits on private property located below a ridge of expensive homes in the Castellammare Mesa area, adjacent to a Getty Villa service road and to property owned by the Mormon Church.
These opponents have voiced concerns about noise, safety and traffic. But more problematic -- and a possible showstopper -- they claim Chabad does not have the right to access the building via the Getty's private service road, the church's property or the hillside backyard of the building's owner, off Bellino Drive.
But the recent discovery of a long-overlooked legal document could substantially alter the situation, potentially allowing for a public street to be constructed that would lead directly to the entrance of the proposed site.
"It's major," said Cunin, explaining that the public street would cross part of the Getty's private road as well as portions of the Mormon Church's parking lot. Chabad is preparing to have the area formally surveyed.
The document, "an irrevocable offer to dedicate," which was recorded on Jan. 4, 1973, was uncovered during a preliminary title search on the Mormon Church property by David Lacy, founder of Senior Realty Advisors of Covina and himself a Mormon, who has been an adviser to Chabad for its real estate acquisitions for more than a decade.
The document designates a strip of land 25 feet long with variable widths that ends, according to Lacy, at the entrance to the 3,000 square-foot vacant building at the foot of a steep 1.64-acre hillside property belonging to longtime resident Gene Gladden. Chabad is renting this building from Gladden, having signed a three-year lease with a 20-year option last January.
Additionally, the 25-foot easement is shown crossing both the Getty Road and the Mormon property and is shown on a parcel map dated Jan. 19, 1973, which Lacy also found.
The controversy arose after Chabad of Pacific Palisades was forced to find a new preschool location when it received notice that the lease on the current Temescal Gateway Park site would end in June 2008. Cunin was making preliminary preparations on what he believed was the ideal new site for the preschool's nature-based curriculum when, in early April, he received a letter from Getty Trust attorney Lori Fox denying Chabad access to the building via the Getty Villa's private service road.
Additionally, members of the 141-family Castellamare Mesa Home Owners Association protested Chabad's right to enter the property through Gladden's hillside backyard off Bellino Drive. The Mormon Church also denied a request from Chabad to approach the building through its parking lot, which abuts Gladden's property. Church officials cited inconvenience for its members as well as potential liability,
Cunin, along with real estate adviser Lacy, believes the potential public street could resolve the thorny access issue. But others, including Chabad's attorney, Benjamin Reznik, a partner at Jeffer, Mangels, Butler and Marmaro, expressed caution.
"It is still being investigated," Reznik said. "We have to look at it ourselves."
Additionally, Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who has been meeting with the involved parties, said, "The city will obviously do its own research," stating that it's the city's role to determine the validity of the claim.
For the Getty, according to Julie Jaskol, the Getty's assistant director of media relations, the potential public roadway is a nonissue.
"It's not actually an easement," she said. "It's an offer to dedicate that has been standing for 30-some years and that only covers part of the road."
The history of this potential public street is complicated. According to Chabad adviser Lacy, it can be traced back to 1932, when the then-property owner, whose name is not known, placed certain easements on property owned in that area, providing for roadways, sanitation and utilities for possible future subdivision and development.
The easements were still in place when the consequent property owner, Garden Land Investment Corp., whom Lacy believes may have acquired the land in the 1950s, sold a three-acre parcel to the Mormon Church in 1970. As part of its conditional-use permit to construct the building, the Mormon Church agreed in the document, signed Jan. 4, 1973, to "an irrevocable offer to dedicate" to the city of Los Angeles an easement for public street purposes, should it ever be required.
The Mormon Church does not want to lose any more land, according to Keith Atkinson, West Coast spokesperson for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Atkinson, who said he only recently learned about the 25-foot easement, claimed that if the public road were implemented, the church would lose up to 10 spaces in its parking lot, for which he believes the church must be compensated.
Over the years, the Mormon Church has granted two easements to the Getty Trust to use its land for a private roadway. Atkinson believes one was granted in the 1970s, for use by emergency vehicles. The other was granted in January 2001, when the Getty Villa was undergoing an extensive expansion and renovation. Atkinson said he believes Getty officials told Mormon Church representatives at that time that the construction of the paved and widened private road would make the city of Los Angeles less likely to request the full easement for the public street.
While many people question the feasibility of the city of Los Angeles financing a public street in that area, Lacy believes there are several good reasons that this might occur. For one, a public street, as opposed to the Getty Villa's private service road, would offer additional street parking for visitors to Topanga State Park, located across the street from the Mormon Church. It would also improve access for fire trucks and other emergency vehicles in the area.
"It provides for cleaner use of the property," Lacy said.Meanwhile, while further investigating the access issue, Chabad is preparing documentation to file a conditional-use permit for the proposed preschool site. Cunin has assured Councilman Rosendahl that the preschool will not open until all the conditions have been met and that access through Bellino Drive is not an option.
Kim Clary, president of the Castellammare Mesa Home Owners Association, said that the homeowners would oppose a conditional-use permit.
"People, especially those around the rim up there, don't want a preschool," she said, adding that increased noise and traffic, particularly at the intersection of Los Liones Drive and Sunset Boulevard remain concerns.
Cunin is trying to get a further extension on the preschool current site at Temescal Gateway Park, as well as exploring other temporary locations. Cunin also said a day care for up to 14 children can be legally operated in any residence.
"There's nothing we need to open the school for 28 children [14 in the morning, 14 in the afternoon] at this time," he said.
While the Mormon Church maintains its refusal to provide access through its parking lot, spokesperson Atkinson wishes the neighborhood were less crowded.
"Chabad needs a place somewhere," he said. "They do good work and need to have their place in the community like anyone else."
Cunin and students at the current preschool at Temescal Gateway Park. Photo by Jane Ulman