Love Thy Neighbor? 

Not likely in rural Alameda County, where federal law may let a religious school circumvent local zoning rules.

For quite some time now, Palomares Canyon, a normally bucolic enclave in unincorporated Castro Valley, has been a very unhappy place. Part of this has to do with a familiar story, an acrimonious dispute between those who like things as they are, and those who dream of how things could be. The other part is more unusual. It has to do with God, the Supreme Court, and a $30 million lawsuit.

Depending on where you stand, but not necessarily where you worship, what's going on in the valley is either a brave struggle for religious freedom or a covert land-grab in the guise of a brave struggle for religious freedom. It has all the makings of a Supreme Court test case for a recent federal law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, legislation that pits the rights of houses of worship against those of people who own houses.

The story, naturally, begins with a piece of land, a small neighborhood framed by two roads that intersect to form a rough capital D. The main road, East Castro Valley Boulevard, which runs parallel to I-580, is the D's spine. Its belly is Palo Verde Road, a much quieter two-lane road that runs along the base of a steep, wooded hillside.

The other side of the hill hosts a new housing development, scattered McMansions, and a few small wineries. But the landscape along Palo Verde hasn't changed much in the last fifty years. It's mostly pastureland and modest ranch-style homes, a place where most families have lived for several generations, and many keep livestock or maintain small orchards. The beloved neighborhood mascot is a donkey named Jackass. The local kids attend Palomares Elementary, a tiny public school, that, at the time our story begins in 1997, was maxed out at eighty students.

That was the year the property search team at Redwood Christian Schools Inc. began to pray for a new home.

Redwood Christian Schools has operated in Alameda County since 1970. It runs three private campuses — two elementary schools in Castro Valley and one junior/senior high in San Lorenzo. For $6,700 to $12,200 a year, depending on grade level and program, the private company promises a "Christ-centered education which is able to equip students for daily living and eternal life." Redwood Christian is proud of its diversity. Its nearly eight hundred students hail from two hundred local churches and thirty denominations. Nearly half are ethnic minorities, and there's a sizable program for students with learning disabilities. Its superintendent, Bruce Johnson, declined to be interviewed, or to allow his teachers to be interviewed for this story.

Redwood Christian has had trouble keeping its high school in one place for long. It leases space from the San Lorenzo Unified School District, and twice the district has terminated its leases because it wanted to reclaim the sites as public schools. Each time, the private high school had to abandon capital improvements it made to the properties. In 1997, after the second move, the school settled into what was once David E. Martin Elementary, a site that administrators now complain is small and outdated. The lease must be renewed every three years, and can be terminated with seven months' notice. Fearing that another eviction would leave its high school homeless, Redwood Christian began shopping for land to build a permanent space.

School administrators envisioned a campus of up to 650 students, with substantial amenities: sports fields, tennis courts, a gym, a separate administrative building, parking lot, bus garage, science labs, choir room, a chapel large enough to fit all the students, a Christian library and media center, and a bookstore. As superintendent Johnson and board chairman Richard Short later wrote in an open letter to the school community, "Our facility should be a testimony to our students, our constituency, and our community of God's faithfulness and His glory. It is to be a reminder to all of us that our God is the God who will provide (Jehovah-Jireh, Genesis 22:14). We believe that our God is not without resources. Psalm 50 tells us He owns the cattle on a thousand hills."

The surroundings, in their view, were as important as the accommodations. "The facility should complement and enhance the natural beauty of the setting God has provided so as to have a positive impact on the beauty of the community," Johnson and Short wrote. "We desire that our staff, our students, and our constituents would feel a sense of the awesomeness and majesty of the 'God who provides' and a pride of ownership and participation each time they enter the grounds."

Palomares Canyon is certainly beautiful, and as the superintendent would repeatedly write on Redwood Christian's "Property Updates" blog, school leaders felt God had led them directly to it. Each time the search committee would pray regarding a certain canyon property, Johnson wrote, it would either go on the market or the owner would be amenable to selling it when they approached him. Over the next several years, the school paid $3 million in cash to buy four parcels totaling 55 acres.

The first twelve acres, purchased in 1997, are smack in the middle of the D formed by the neighborhood's main roads. They are also right next door to LeRoy Ginn. A mechanical contractor who grows grapes on his land for nearby wineries, Ginn was then head of the Palomares Canyon Homeowners Association. He first heard of the new high school, he recalls, when the seller of the neighboring land invited him over to speak with some of Redwood's board members. Ginn was immediately alarmed, and not because he's averse to religious neighbors. Indeed, he attends the same church as Richard Short, Redwood's board chairman.

Ginn recalls warning the Redwood Christian people that an influx of 650 high schoolers, with all the consequent noise and traffic, would not be welcomed by neighbors accustomed to dealing with just eighty grade-school tykes. He also cautioned that the county was unlikely to approve such an ambitious project. The canyon is zoned for single-family homes and agriculture; anything else requires a county conditional use permit. Several plans to develop that same plot — townhomes, a plant nursery — had previously fallen by the wayside.

Besides, any private school built in the county requires a conditional use permit, regardless of neighborhood zoning. Redwood Christian should at least be sure it could secure one before laying its money down, Ginn advised. "Are you sure you know what you're getting into?" he recalls saying. "We're not going to support it."

Nevertheless, Redwood Christian forged ahead.


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