September 20, 2019

Burbank shul stunned by rejection of preschool permit, plans appeal

With a new rabbi and a growing waiting list for its preschool, Burbank Temple Emanu El has been preparing in recent months for long-awaited growth by seeking the city’s permission to expand its preschool and Hebrew school.

But when a request to use an adjacent home owned by the Conservative synagogue as an educational facility was denied by the city’s five-person planning board in a 3-2 vote on Aug. 11, Rabbi John Carrier was stunned at the setback. He told the Journal the synagogue soon will appeal the decision to Burbank’s City Council.

“We made plans that mitigated any concerns about extra traffic or parking at that house,” said Carrier, who has a daughter attending the preschool and another one in the Hebrew school. “We played everything by the rules.”

Nevertheless, facing complaints made by several neighbors and expressing concerns about noise, car traffic and preservation of the neighborhood’s residential character, three board members — Undine Petrulis, Christopher Rizzotti and Kimberly Jo — voted down Emanu El’s request. Kenneth San Miguel and Doug Drake voted to approve the permit.

The synagogue believes that expanding its preschool and Hebrew school would create an opportunity to attract new families. Emanu El has about 100 families today, up from a few years ago when it was contemplating merging with another congregation because of declining membership and financial difficulties. At 60 students, the preschool housed in the synagogue on North Glenoaks Boulevard is at capacity.

Had the board approved Emanu El’s request to use as an educational facility the house it owns at 407 Bethany Road, it would have allowed the synagogue to educate another 20 students, approximately the current size of its preschool waiting list. Synagogue leaders said the home was donated to the temple about 12 years ago by a longtime member who hoped that it would eventually be used for classrooms.

Burbank Temple Emanu El (white building in the background) wants to convert the interior of this house, which it owns, into school classrooms. Burbank's planning board turned down the synagogue's request. 

Emanu El’s proposal, which the temple began preparing for the planning board late last year, was to remodel the interior of the house while leaving the exterior largely unaffected, so as to maintain the aesthetic appearance of the street, which is lined with residential homes. A longtime presence in the neighborhood, the synagogue has operated out of its current building since the early 1970s.

Assuring the planning board in meetings this summer that the expanded preschool would not impact traffic flow or parking in the community, the synagogue received the blessing of Burbank’s community development department, a city agency that reviews and offers recommendations on proposals made to the planning board. 

In an Aug. 11 memo to the board as part of its recommendation for approval of Emanu El’s request, two officials from the department noted that 24 preschools already exist in residentially zoned areas of Burbank, that four had received conditional-use permits to use existing facilities as a preschool and that they had “not found any data or records to suggest that there is likely to be any significant impacts from parking [or] noise.”

Carrier, who became the synagogue’s first full-time rabbi in years when he joined the congregation in July after receiving ordination from American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, spoke in front of the planning board on Aug. 11. In the meeting (video of which is available online), he invoked the biblical commandment in Deuteronomy to educate children (recited daily in Jewish prayer services) as a primary reason Emanu El needs use of the home as a school.

“What this expansion allows us to do is to live that, to fulfill that precept,” Carrier told the Journal. “We have the right to expect the same consideration that has been received by dozens of other organizations in the city.” 

From a financial perspective, increasing the size of the synagogue’s preschool and Hebrew school would introduce the congregation to new families, who in turn may choose to become paying members. Stacy Schnaid, the synagogue’s vice president, wrote in an email to the Journal that Emanu El’s proposed expansion “is vital to our synagogue from a social, spiritual and financial perspective.”

“The preschool brings in young families who become part of our temple community,” she wrote. She also told the planning board that the preschool welcomes families of all backgrounds; about 25 percent of the students are not Jewish.

Still, at the Aug. 11 meeting, vice chair Petrulis cited several concerns that weighed on her mind, including additional traffic and noise, and said that the board is “trying to preserve our neighborhoods.” 

“The school is already there,” Petrulis said at the meeting. “But adding another 20 percent I think is detrimental.”

One resident who lives near the synagogue and voiced to the board his opposition to the temple’s permit application, characterized Emanu El’s proposal as a “game changer” and said that Burbank “has an obligation to maintain the neighborhood as it [was] when I [bought] it.” 

Rizzotti, a board member and real estate agent, implied that converting the home for use as a school could reduce property values or impact the ability of neighbors to market their homes if they have to disclose that they live next to a preschool. He suggested at the meeting that it may be time for Emanu El to find larger facilities elsewhere. Jo, who also declined the request, expressed her affection for the synagogue but also suggested it may want to consider moving into a larger building. 

Rizzotti told the Journal that he would have liked to have been provided with figures on how many residential homes in Burbank had been converted for use as a school — the community development department only provided statistics showing that 24 preschools already exist in residential zones, not identifying those that were essentially residential structures.

“If you told me there were 10 single-family homes converted into preschools, that’s a factual basis statement that possibly I can take into consideration,” Rizzotti said in a telephone interview.

The city agency that recommended approval wrote to the Journal that it was unaware of other single-family homes in Burbank receiving the permit that Emanu El is seeking but would conduct additional research upon appeal.

 Drake, a board member who voted to approve Emanu El’s request, told the Journal that he had to weigh neighbors’ complaints with his “100 percent” agreement with the community development department’s findings that Emanu El’s request would entail no significant disruption of the street’s residential character. 

“You have the neighborhood — they have been here for quite a while. The temple has been there for quite a long time as well and is a fixture of the neighborhood,” Drake said. “I didn’t feel that it would be disruptive enough to vote against it.”

This is not the first time that Emanu El has had proposals for expansion denied by the city. In 1995 and 2001, the synagogue attempted — and failed — to increase its preschool and Hebrew school capacities. But Emanu El’s current leadership points out that in both of those proposals, the synagogue requested building a two-story structure, a more ambitious request than utilizing the interior of an existing adjacent one-story home.

“We already have a preschool, so it’s not like we are trying to do something new in a residential community,” said Leeron Dvir, the synagogue’s preschool director. “We are not trying to build a second story, we are not trying to turn it into a huge facility. It’s going to look like a home from the outside.”

Schnaid, discussing the synagogue’s upcoming appeal to the city council, said she expects that the planning board’s ruling will be overturned if the council “fairly and properly” considers the facts. That appeal is expected to be filed within the coming days or weeks.