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Retired Official’s Memories Support Baptist Seminary Neighbors’ Claims

Tuesday July 27, 2004

As the long-running dispute between the American Baptist Seminary of the West and its neighbors threatens to boil over once again, the city Planning Department sought advice from Robert Humphrey, a long-retired city zoning officer. 

Neighbors have charged that the seminary has consistently violated the terms of the 1962 city-issued use permit that authorized construction of two residential halls along the 2500 block of Hillegass Avenue. 

But just what that original permit intended was a question until city staffers sought out its author. 

The neighbors already had champions in City Councilmembers Kriss Worthington and Gordon Wozniak, who agreed to sponsor their detailed plan for reaching a solution with the divinity school, but a key vote scheduled for last week’s council session was delayed when the council found out city staff had already acted independently by contacting Humphrey and issuing a demand letter to the school. 

Area residents are angry that the seminary, afflicted by declining enrollment, has rented out much of the campus to the University of California, which has brought in more than four times the 250 anticipated students specified in the 1962 permit. 

As a result, neighbors say, traffic congestion has increased and on-street parking has become scarce. 

Discontent coalesced two years ago over seminary plans to demolish two historic cottages on the campus and replace them with a 65-foot-tall residential, classroom and office complex containing a 48-car garage. 

Neighbors created the Benvenue Neighbors Association (BNA), and launched an ongoing campaign to bring the campus into compliance with the 1962 use permit. 

While they succeeded in blocking the demolition and the big building by landmarking the two cottages and forcing the seminary to undertake an environmental impact report on the project—something seminary officials said they couldn’t afford—the BNA wanted more. 

“We have been working with Kriss Worthington to come up with a resolution for the City Council,” said Sharon Hudson, one of BNA’s most outspoken activists. 

Wozniak signed on as well, though it was Worthington who introduced the proposal at last week’s City Council meeting. 

But it was only just before the council meeting that the two councilmembers discovered the city Planning Department had already acted. 

For more than a year, city planning staff have been working to determine how the campus is currently being used and what was the intent behind the original permit, said Planning Director Dan Marks. 

“We have a huge file, but to interpret the 1962 use permit and what was intended, we had to find the zoning officer who was involved. We sat down with him, and we were all amazed at his memory, and he recalled the events quite well,” Marks said. 

And what Robert Humphrey recalled for Zoning Officer Mark Rhoades and Assistant City Attorney Zach Cowan was precisely what the BNA had insisted was the case all along: The use permit was issued on the basis of a maximum student body of 250 and on the premise that only the seminary would use the campus on a consistent basis. 

Based on their study of the file and on Humphrey’s recollection, Rhoades fired off a letter to seminary President Dr. Keith Russell and his attorney on July 12, eight days before the council was to take up Worthington’s resolution. 

“City staff has determined that ABSW is not in compliance with the intent of the letter of the existing use permit” and “must either come into compliance. . .or seek a modification” to allow use and enrollment to go beyond the terms of the existing permit, Rhoades’ letter said. 

Hudson praised the letter, adding “it contains almost everything we could’ve asked for. We’re very happy they did that, but if we’d known before, Kriss Worthington might have written a much stronger resolution.” 

Wozniak said he also regretted not having the letter before the council meeting. “It would’ve been very useful to have known of it earlier,” he said. 

The seminary has leased space to UC for both its extension division and the recently canceled program teaching English to non-natives, drawing in more than a 1,000 non-seminary students to the site, between Hillegass and Benvenue avenues and along Dwight Way. 

The campus also houses a commercial venture, Integrated Structures Inc., which lists its address as 2606 Dwight Way in official corporate filings with the California Secretary of State. ISI was the lead contractor in retrofitting on-campus buildings. 

Rhoades’ letter, dated July 12, gave Russell and his attorney 45 days to respond, and the city council voted to delay action on Worthington’s resolution until the Sept. 28 meeting, exactly one month after a response is due to Rhoades’ letter. 

Worthington and Wozniak praised the BNA for offering a conciliatory stance which doesn’t demand immediate compliance from the seminary and offers hope of reaching a settlement that would allow the school to continue leasing some space to UC. 

“It will be a lot easier to reach a solution if the neighbors approve,” Marks said. 

Russell was unavailable for comment Monday.