Heschel Day School West gets OK, but future still looks clouded

After a protracted and often contentious battle, Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School West got the green light in late November to build a permanent school on a bucolic, 72-acre site adjacent to Agoura Hills when the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved its application for a conditional-use permit.

A final consent hearing will be scheduled as soon as the draft document outlining more than 29 conditions and modifications is finalized, according to Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, whose Third District governs the now-vacant parcel nestled in a rolling meadow abutting the Santa Monica Mountains, just north of the Ventura Freeway and east of the Chesebro Road exit.

“We have imposed conditions on this school that we have never imposed on any other school,” Yaroslavsky said. For example, Heschel must contribute approximately $3.5 million for traffic mitigation and comply with stringent fire, safety, noise and community compatibility requirements.

However, instead of rejoicing and preparing to kick off a new capital campaign to fund the project, Heschel West faces continued opposition from the city of Agoura Hills, which will shoulder the traffic and safety burdens of the new school but lacks direct jurisdiction over the neighboring unincorporated land.

Additionally, Heschel faces a possible lawsuit from the Old Agoura Homeowners Association, representing the nearby community of about 420 families, which wants to protect its equestrian way of life and which has fought the project since the beginning.

“Arduous is the word,” said Heschel West board member Rick Wentz, who is in charge of land entitlements, in describing the drawn-out battle.

Wentz has been involved with the project since before the land was purchased in 1997 for $1.6 million by a group of Heschel West families. Since then, he said, the school has spent more than $2 million on consultants, studies and entitlements. In addition, he and other school representatives have also looked at hundreds of alternative properties over the last eight years, none of them acceptable.

Heschel West was founded in 1994 with 14 kindergarten students. Today, the school serves 199 students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade on its crowded temporary campus off Liberty Canyon Road. Its middle school, currently merged with Kadima Hebrew Academy, is housed on Kadima’s West Hills campus.

According to Wentz, the school has fully complied with all environmental and zoning requirements, including the legal restrictions of the North Area Plan, which regulates development within much of the unincorporated area of the Santa Monica Mountains.

“All the issues raised by our opposition have all been looked at and addressed and approved by neutral officials charged with the protection of public health and safety,” Wentz said.

Additionally, the school has made concessions to meet the community’s concerns about safety, traffic and quality of life.

The new school, consisting of nine permanent buildings that will eventually house up to 750 students in grades pre-kindergarten through eight, will be built on 14 acres. Another 29 acres will be dedicated permanently to the Mountains Recreation & Conservation Authority to protect the Liberty Canyon Wildlife Corridor.

The school itself will be set back 300 feet or more from the nearest private property line and is designed to blend in with the aesthetics of Old Agoura, with buildings no more than two stories tall and residential rather than institutional in appearance, with wooden siding and gray shake roofs. Overall, the school is adopting an equestrian theme, designating street names such as Oak Lane and Sycamore Circle, planting natural shrubs and oak trees and putting in a split-rail fence.

In addition to appearance, traffic is another major concern to the city of Agoura Hills and to the Old Agoura Homeowners Association. But both Wentz and Yaroslavsky stress that Heschel will be accessed directly off the Ventura Freeway’s Chesebro exit, alleviating most of the traffic through Agoura Hills.

The school is also committed to paying millions of dollars toward traffic mitigation, including installing a traffic light or a roundabout right at the off-ramp adjacent to the school’s Canwood Street entrance. That determination will be made by the state Department of Transportation, and without approval for either, the school will be limited to 391 students.

Fire is also an issue, especially in terms of evacuating the Old Agoura community and all its animals in an emergency, a difficult and laborious undertaking. However, Wentz said the school is ameliorating the situation in several ways.

First, the school’s landscaping, made up of different zones of plants with different burning capacities, will be designed to slow down a fire.

Second, while advance notice is generally given to evacuate in case of fire, the school will contain a “shelter in place,” a large concrete area with oxygen and other supplies, where students and staff can wait out the fire if necessary. “It’s much safer to go to shelter in place than try to evacuate in cars,” Wentz said.

And with the school constructing a new entrance road off Canwood, adjacent to the freeway exit at Chesebro, as well as an emergency exit that connects farther north off Chesebro, the school is, in effect, creating an additional exit that Old Agoura residents can use in the event of fire or other emergency.

Agoura Hills City Manager Greg Ramirez remains concerned that parents will still converge on the school to pick up their children, despite having a shelter in place and a police guard at the school’s entrance.

“They all have to get on the freeway or cross the bridge at Chesebro,” he said.

Despite concerns regarding fire and other safety issues and despite having to work through the Board of Supervisors, given the land’s location in unincorporated Los Angeles County, Ramirez said that city officials have been recently feeling more comfortable that their concerns are being taken seriously both by the Board of Supervisors and Heschel representatives.

“We’re never going to get what we would like, but that’s part of life,” Ramirez said.