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[whitespace] City will appeal ruling allowing stadium at West Valley College

Neighbors are mobilizing to halt the college's plans; WVC contends plans are modest

Saratoga--Saratoga's city council will appeal a county Superior Court judge's ruling that West Valley College, located in the city, is not subject to the city's authority when it comes to land use. The council made the decision to appeal in a closed meeting on Dec. 4.

The September ruling of Judge Conrad L. Rushing was finalized in October. In essence, it allows the West Valley-Mission Community College District to develop an athletic stadium on the West Valley campus, even though the city's zoning law prohibits stadiums in Saratoga. Furthermore, when the city awarded the district its conditional-use permit in the 1960s to build the WVC campus, one condition it placed on the permit's approval was that a stadium could never be built on the campus.

The site in question is the college's football field, which is surrounded by a running track. Ruth Carlson, the director of public affairs for the district, said the college has no immediate plans for improvements to the existing facility, but what the district has talked about in the past is putting in permanent bleacher-type seats, lighting and a scoreboard. Today, spectators must bring folding chairs to the facility for events, and according to Carlson, this is dangerous. She said she didn't know about any plans for an audio system at the facility.

According to Carlson, the district would use the improved facility for athletic and educational purposes, meaning football games, track and field events and physical education classes. The district might also allow the community to use the site for soccer.

"There are no plans to have any concerts," she said of the stadium.

Saratoga first filed suit against the district in March 1996, when the district presented a plan for a stadium at the college.

The city thought the college breached its agreement with the city, but the district claimed that the conditional-use permit from the city was not the equivalent of a signed contract and, therefore, the district could not be held to its 1960s promise not to develop a stadium. A judge ruled in favor of the district on the contract issue in 1998.

The city and the district also disagree on the interpretation of a state law that says state educational facilities don't have to comply with local zoning laws. The state law was amended in the 1970s to say that state educational facilities don't have to comply with local zoning laws, but only for educational purposes.

While the district says a stadium would be an educational purpose, the city says it would not.

Saratoga City Attorney Richard Taylor said the city interprets the legislation as meaning a stadium with seats, sound and lighting for night events, that could be used for rock concerts and other activities, is not the type of facility that the legislation intends to exempt.

In September, Judge Rushing dealt with whether a stadium would be an educational purpose or not, and again ruled in favor of the district. Rushing handed down his final ruling on Oct. 10.

The city is optimistic that it will win in appeals court, according to Taylor. He said the city has a strong argument because the amendment to the state law expressly intends to not allow schools to exempt themselves from local ordinances for facilities such as stadiums.

"I also feel the courts should uphold a signed agreement between two agencies," Taylor said.

Neighbors of the college have mobilized in the last few weeks to form the West Valley Homeowners Association, which is dedicated not to allow any plans for a stadium at West Valley College to be realized. The group's message had spread by word of mouth, so that on Dec. 4, 39 residents showed up at the closed council meeting to speak during oral communications. Fifteen people spoke, calling for the city to appeal the October ruling.

According to one representative of the homeowners association, Victor Monia, there are about 11 members so far, and the group has raised more than $10,000 from neighbors and residents to be used for possible legal fees, lobbying and mailings.

"They need to understand over there that we're not just going to sit here and do nothing," Monia said of the district.

The neighbors' efforts are separate from any efforts on the part of the city, Monia said.

The neighbors who spoke on Dec. 4, said the effects of a stadium at the college would mean more traffic, more noise and light spill onto neighboring properties, reckless driving, and decreased property values for the nearby homes. They said a stadium would impact the whole city negatively, not just the surrounding neighborhood.

There was a sense among the emotional residents who spoke that the district had made a lot of empty promises and could not be trusted.

Jeffrey Schwartz, a resident and a close neighbor of the college who is also on the district's board of trustees, had the district's attorney gave him a letter explaining whether or not Schwartz had to recuse himself from voting on the stadium issue, as a governing board member. According to Schwartz, the letter states that since the stadium would have a substantial impact on his property's value, he had to legally recuse himself.

Schwartz said from the time he joined the board, he has recused himself from discussing or voting on this issue, not only for legal reasons, but for ethical reasons. Schwartz is not a member of the homeowners' association.

Schwartz said at the Dec. 4 meeting that the neighbors showed up, not to complain that the city has not done enough but, to make sure that the city keeps fighting.

"The city council has been absolutely great," Schwartz said that night.

Another resident who spoke, Cheriel Jensen, noted other effects of a stadium, such as drinking in parking lots and crime.

"It is so important to say no to this," Jensen implored the council.

The pleas of the residents who showed up did not fall on deaf ears, though, as the council decided afterwards, in closed session, to appeal the ruling. The neighborhood group is considering filing a friend of the court brief, Monia said.

"We're really pleased that the city is going to file an appeal on behalf of the community," Monia said in a later interview.
Kara Chalmers

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