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LA MESA -- The City Council chamber was standing-room only at 6 p.m. Tuesday as students from Valhalla High School crowded in to get a lesson in government.
Unfortunately, their teacher must have only required an hour-long visit and the students cleared out before the real civics lesson of the evening occurred.
From 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. residents of the neighborhood around Northmont Elementary School gave a text-book lesson in local government as they argued over a proposal to open a daycare and preschool in the residential area adjacent to Northmont.
For the first half of the two-hour debate, speaker after speaker rose to praise the "awesome" work done by Anise and Egle Athari, the proprietors of the BunnyBears Inhome Preschool, who want to open a new, larger facility in a home located at the corner of Gregory Street and Howell Drive.
Traffic and noise consultants reported on studies that showed the little school -- with just 25 students -- would do little to add to the daily chaos that accompanied the comings and goings at the 425-student elementary school next door.
But then for the next hour, residents of what is largely a residential neighborhood around Northmont, vented decades of bilious frustrations of living with what has become daily rush hours as parents crowd the street to drop off and pick up at the elementary school and fill the nearby sports fields on nights and weekends.
BunnyBears, everyone agreed, is a small operation, but anything that added to the traffic in this neighborhood was clearly picking at pretty raw scabs. One opponent even hired a lawyer who added an almost comic layer of Inherit The Wind drama to this debate. Sensing a potential technical issue, the attorney argued that inadequate handicap parking on the property would lead to eventual litigation -- though, he, himself, was adamantly against this sort of handicap legalizing. Lawyers.
But, in the end, the council listened to all involved and then had to consider whether or not to support its Planning Commission, which had approved the BunnyBears' proposal, albeit with a long list of conditions.
Had the Valhalla students stayed, they would have watched as four of the five council members gave articulate defenses for their positions.
Council member Kristine Alessio, facing her first signifcant vote on council, sided with the commissioners she had just recently left to join this council. She said the conditions were stringent and would give neighbors more than adequate leverage if the center didn't perform properly.
Council member Mark Arapostathis, a teacher and a veteran of the La Mesa morning school zone traffic wars, lamented the parental fears that lead so many to drive their children all the way to school every morning, but said he couldn't see letting even a good school like BunnyBears add to that chaos at that particular corner.
Councilman Ernie Ewin said much of the neighbors' concerns had to do with Northmont, not this small addition to the neighborhood and he could support the Planning Commission's analysis.
Mayor Art Madrid cited decades of weighing both school traffic issues and the encroachment of commercial entities into residential neighborhoods and felt the Planning Commission had erred in this case.
That left, as the swing vote, Councilwoman Ruth Sterling, who lives just far enough down Gregory Street to avoid a conflict of interest in this case. In a long exigesis in which she sometimes mistook the Parking Commission for the Planning Commission, Sterling eventually made it clear she saw this good school as simply a commercial entity trying to locate in a residential neighborhood. "It is a business,'' she said.
That meant a 3-2 vote to overturn the Planning Commission and to go against the city staff's recommendation.
Had the Valhalla students hung in for the duration, they would have seen Madrid consoling his good friend and Planning Commission member Dexter Levy while the BunnyBears proprietors grieved with current and prospective parents outside the chamber.
The final lesson: Sometimes in politics, you can't split the baby.