In the continued fallout of a corruption scandal that has rocked city hall, Anaheim City Council Members last week made a rare decision – going against their own planning commission and denying a conversion of a church into a school.
They sided with residents instead of the developers – marking a potential shift in how council members approach redevelopments.
In the past, city council members regularly approved development projects in the city’s working class neighborhoods, despite resident objections.
On Sept. 12, city council members voted 5-1 to block a project that would convert a church near the Anaheim Coves nature park into a charter school – overturning a July ruling by city planning commissioners to allow the proposal to move forward.
The decision came after scores of residents and congregants raised safety, pollution, noise and traffic concerns about converting Cove Church (formerly Calvary Baptist Church) into a charter school run by Scholarship Prep with up to 480-students.
A majority of council members said they shared those safety concerns and their decision had nothing to do with valuing a church over a charter school but about location.
Mayor Ashleigh Aitken said a school would have a big impact on the neighbors.
“The safety and the security of not just the schoolchildren, but the residents and the neighbors in that area needs to really be thought through a little bit more,” Aitken said.
“I don’t think it’s fair to this neighborhood for them to pay the price.”
Aitken’s father, Wylie, chairs Voice of OC’s board of directors.
Councilman Jose Diaz was the lone dissenting vote, arguing that the developer, Red Hook Capital Partners, and staff addressed the safety concerns.
“The notion that a residential neighborhood is no good place or a school is not true,” he said. “For more than a year, staff analyzed the traffic, analyzed the pollution and addressed every single one of the concerns.”
Councilman Stephen Faessel abstained from the vote stating he lived near the church.
The project came before the council after residents in the area appealed a July 17 decision by city planning commissioners to approve a conditional use permit to convert the church into the school.
“At the planning commission hearing our concerns were not discussed. Contrary to what the planning commissioners stated, this project will negatively affect our daily lives,” said resident Cecilia Flores, who appealed the project, forcing city officials to reconsider it.
“The negative impacts a project of this magnitude would bring to our neighborhoods are numerous, including more traffic, parking problems and a significant increase in noise.”
Planning Commission Chair and former Councilwoman Lucille Kring said at the July meeting the charter school will provide parents a choice when it comes to their kids’ education.
“I don’t have children but if I did, I would be happy that I had a choice to decide where my kids would go to school so this just gives parents an extra level of A, B, or maybe C,” she said.
Kring and Commissioners Michelle Lieberman, Christopher Walker, Amelia Castro and Grant Henniger voted to approve the permit.
Commissioners Luis Andres Perez and Jeanne Tran Martin voted against the project.
Last week, some spoke in favor of the school, arguing that Scholarship Prep has a great program and residents’ concerns have been addressed.
Andrew Crowe, the deputy director of Scholarship Prep, said the school serves the needs of homeless and foster youth and is high performing in math and English.
“Staff recommended this project, The Planning Commission approved this project. Since that happened staff has responded to every single one of the appellants’ concerns and found them invalid,” he said.
A New Anaheim?
The decision came more than a month after the release of an independent corruption investigation report in late July in which investigators alleged loose oversight over lobbyists, certain developers receiving preferential treatment and influence peddling at city hall.
The independent investigation echoes sworn FBI affidavits that surfaced last year, in which federal agents alleged a shadowy group of lobbyists and resort interests through the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce held outsized influence over policy making at city hall.
Two residents in public comment pointed out that the developer behind the proposal, Enrique Daiz – vice president of the Red Hook Capital Partners – hired lobbyist Jill Wallace.
The city lobbyist’s registry shows Wallace registered Red Hook as a client in July of this year before the planning commission hearing.
In the past, developers who hired lobbyists to help get the projects approved in Anaheim have found success.
In 2021, former Mayor Harry Sidhu and his council majority narrowly approved developer 5G LLC’s project to convert Sunkist Plaza into a car wash and gas station despite residents and longtime business owners speaking against the proposal.
The decision came after the developer hired lobbyist Jeff Flint to help get the project approved.
Independent investigators accuse Flint in their report of breaking the law and failing to report multiple meetings with officials as well as hosting a private exclusive retreat with elected officials and resort interests called out by the FBI.
Flint did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Last year, Greenlaw Development – a developer named in the independent investigation report as one of Sidhu’s preferred developers – was moving forward with a project to buy city-owned land to build homes and a commercial development.
The project faced pushback from a former planning commissioner and questions from a previous city councilman in the wake of the FBI corruption allegations.
In November, former City Council Jose Moreno raised concerns about Greenlaw Developer Rob Mitchell contributing to Sidhu’s campaign and his association with Flint and the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, but the council decided to move forward with the project.
In the end, the project fell apart after the development failed to secure funding.
Meanwhile, Sidhu pleaded guilty to four federal charges last week, including lying to federal investigators about trying to ram through the Angel Stadium deal by leaking critical information to a team consultant for $1 million in campaign support.
And the current city council had a discussion on reforming the city’s lobbyist rules at the same meeting they heard the appeal against the charter school project.
Residents Push Back Against School
Many congregants from the Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal Church, who lease space at the Cove Church, argued the building should remain a house of worship not a school during about two hours of public comments.
Some Pentecostal congregates even said their church would buy the property.
It wasn’t just residents and church goers who came out against the proposed charter school.
Last week, officials from both the Anaheim Union High School District and the Anaheim Elementary School District also pushed back against the conversion, echoing residents’ concerns and arguing that the local public schools offer the same programs at a high level.
They also worried about losing funding.
“By approving this charter, you’re draining resources and services from our district,” said Jaron Fried, assistant superintendent for the Anaheim Union High School District.
“We’re declining enrollment across the state because many people are leaving California, adding another school furthers that decline, which reduces additional services and supports that our students and families deserve.
Diaz questioned why local school districts would push back on the project.
“Maybe it’s because they don’t want to lose the monopoly on the school system,” he said.
“That’s what I think.”
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
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