Love Thy Neighbor? 

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

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That was the beginning, and it was not good.


As Ginn had predicted, residents loathed the idea. In addition to the usual worries about traffic, noise, and light pollution from the playing fields, they said the new school wouldn't serve the locals, was out of character for the neighborhood, and would squeeze too many people onto a small plot of land.

François Koutchouk, a homeowners' association board member who lives a few houses from the disputed site, launched a Web site and e-mail list to rally the opposition. He's just the sort of hybrid — small-time farmer/tech professional — you might expect in rural Alameda County. He raises sheep and rabbits, and chickens that spend the day pecking at discarded computer parts from his at-home business designing electronic signs. His garden is a wild profusion of grapevines, blackberry brambles, and apple and pear trees. "All of us moved here for good reason — it's the country," he says.

The neighbors have no problem with schools or religious organizations, Koutchouk says. It's a question of size, and of not disrupting the rural feel of a neighborhood where people ride bicycles down open roads and you can still see the stars at night. "It's dropping seven hundred kids plus cooking staff, cleaning staff, the sporting activities, in the middle of an area that has a density of next to nothing," he says. "I don't think it makes any sense."

Koutchouk suspects Redwood Christian's administrators were led here by business acumen, not divine will. After all, he says, parents shelling out that kind of money expect a country-club setting. "It's a private school that charges tuition that is looking to find a very stylish area," he says, then shrugs. "Nobody invests three million bucks without making some kind of business decision."

For several years, the proposal wound its way through the usual bureaucratic process, with foes and supporters turning out at public meetings in great numbers. But little was achieved in terms of rapprochement. The school offered to swap around positions of some of its buildings, but remained committed to bringing in 650 students. When Redwood Christian purchased two more parcels — across the street to the north and across the street to the south — it did less to assuage concerns about student overcrowding than make the neighbors feel surrounded.

As Ginn had predicted, county agencies did not embrace the proposal: In October 2000, the Castro Valley Municipal Advisory Council unanimously recommended against it. The next month, the county planning commission also rejected it, saying the plan was "inconsistent and incompatible with ... development policies for the area."

In 2001, after Redwood Christian appealed to the Board of Supervisors, Nate Miley stepped in as mediator. The supervisor hoped both sides could agree to a facility the size of the existing Palomares Elementary. No deal. "The school was intent on having a larger facility and the community was intent on, in some cases, not having anything out there at all, so they wanted to roll the dice with the Board of Supervisors as opposed to working on a compromise," Miley recalls.

In another mediation attempt, supervisors made Redwood Christian provide some alternative designs. The school responded with plans for campuses of 650, 425, 225, or 80 students. Redwood Christian claims the board rejected all of them. The supes counter that they liked the smallest design, but that the school was intent on a larger campus and didn't pursue it. In the end, the board denied the permit, concluding that the campus would be too big, too high-impact, and inappropriate for the neighborhood's zoning.

Redwood Christian's administrators felt stung and that they'd jumped through all the county's hoops only to be repeatedly denied. The permitting standards, they complained, were so vague that the board was able to reject their plan without providing a good reason.

Why didn't the company simply sell its land and start over elsewhere?

Two words: Measure D. In 2000, county voters approved the open-space initiative, which was designed to preserve agricultural space and limit urban sprawl. It created an urban growth boundary and put heavier development restrictions on land that fell outside of it. This included areas like Palomares Canyon, which the initiative called "environmentally fragile and valuable" and "vulnerable to intense development pressure that would be very destructive." Zoning laws had already limited development options in the canyon, and Measure D diminished the resale value of Redwoods Christian's land acquisitions.

The initiative also lessened its chance of finding a comparable, developable site elsewhere. The company claimed that despite an extensive search, it could identify no suitable alternatives within its service area. Even if it had, administrators argued, they'd have to go through the same process again with no guarantee of a better result.

"We believed at the beginning of the process — and still believe — that this is where the Lord would have us to build a campus to minister and educate the students in our classrooms for years to come." Johnson wrote on the school's blog. "We are now faced with three options: 1) try to sell this property, which Measure D has devalued, 2) swap the land with someone who can use it (e.g., local or county government); or 3) appeal to the federal court system."

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