ALBANY -- Plans for a new music building and other construction at St. Mary's College High School on the Albany-Berkeley border were granted a conditional use permit and a mitigated negative declaration Sept. 11 by the Planning and Zoning Commission over the objections of neighbors.
"It's a lot of effort," Vivian Kahn, a consultant to the school, said of the approval that replaces the site's original use permit. "There's a better use permit than exists now that will provide improvements. The longer this goes on, the longer we continue operating under the old use permit. I think it's to everybody's advantage getting through the process."
Before the votes, Commissioner Phillip Moss admonished opponents of the plans.
At a previous meeting, the possibility of legal action was raised by members of the Peralta Park Neighborhood Association. Concerns had been expressed about a new chapel being built on the property and whether it would host weddings and other events. St. Mary's has proposed voluntary restrictions on its use.
"Limitations on the use of chapel -- this is not the place for it," Moss said. "It's not going to be on our conditions of approval."
He then accused the group of presenting case law that "is not factual," saying that he researched the cases involving questions of expansions by schools associated with religious institutions. Cities are allowed zoning controls for nonreligious uses of property but cannot infringe on an institution's religious freedom, he said.
"I have strong feelings about this and I was told not to share some of my feelings," Moss said. "It has to do with my family and the religious freedom they struggled with for years. St Mary's, outside of this, wants to put those conditions on this, that's fine. I think taking it any further, will open the city up to a lawsuit, which I don't think the city should have to defend. I don't think I or most of the citizens of the city of Albany would want to defend that in court, religious freedom."
Donna DeDiemar of the neighborhood association was unhappy with the statements by Moss.
"PPNA members, and me in particular, were very disappointed with tonight's hearing" because of the comments made by Moss, DeDiemar said, adding, "After years of hearings, he still does not understand the difference between California environmental law and federal religious land use protection."
She said the hearing "became a forum for Commissioner Moss to express what distaste he had for everything about the neighbors."
The project has been in the planning stages for several years. DeDiemar pointed out that many of the concerns raised by neighbors have been addressed through negotiations with the school.
"The PPNA has been dedicated to the notion that relations with St. Mary's, particularly as they affect the traffic, parking, and noise in the surrounding neighborhoods, should be improved, and I can categorically state that they have been," she said. "Brother Edmond (Larouche, president of St. Mary's) has been tireless in his efforts to find common ground with the neighbors, and members of his staff have likewise worked with us to resolve the ongoing problems that are to be expected when such a large institution sits in the middle of such a densely populated area."
Most speakers at the meeting expressed concerns about an enrollment cap of 630 students, with some asking it to be lowered to 600. The commission did not change the cap.
"Our interest really is to make things work for everybody," Larouche said. "The school and the neighbors."
Opponents have two weeks to appeal the approval to the City Council.