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Mediation center divides Auburn neighborhood

Council member takes ?leap of faith? in approving controversial zoning change
By: Sara Seyydin Journal Staff Writer
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City Council approved the rezoning of a historic property for use as a mediation center amidst a divided crowd Monday night. Under the resolution, the council rezoned the property from a residential zone to an Open Space Conservation, which carries stricter guidelines. The decision was based on several stipulations the property?s owners must follow. In two years, the council will review the center?s adherence to these guidelines before allowing it to continue to operate. Additional environmental guidelines for preserving the property?s trees were also outlined. Terri Batsel, who owns the historic El Toyon residence with her husband Henry, passionately defended their cause, two years in the making, before the council. ?Think about a family who maybe needs to confront their mother who is aging and living in their childhood home being able to have a facilitated conversation in a disarming environment,? Batsel said. The Batsels have dreamed of turning the historic residence on 211 Brook Road into a center for people to mediate conflicts without going to court, undergo conflict mediation training and host quarterly fundraisers, but the project had mixed reactions from neighbors. The historic home was first owned by Col. Walter Scott Davis, a Civil War hero and owner of the Mammoth Bar goldmine. As only the third owners in over 100 years, the Batsels have restored the Victorian house and property immaculately, residents of the neighborhood agreed. Some said they were concerned about the impact on traffic, noise and property values the center would bring, while others said they would be proud to have a mediation center on their block. Victor Roumage lives next door to the property. Davis was his great-grandfather. ?We would probably be the most affected by this project,? Roumage said. ?We are very much in support of this. I think of all the possible alternatives that could happen. This is the least impact I think could happen to the property.? Pam Richards, a nearby neighbor, said while the Batsels have done a wonderful job maintaining the place she is opposed to the center on principle. ?My concern is if this project is approved is this going to change the character of our neighborhood and create an unfortunate precedent?? Richards asked. ?We don?t need to see this home changed into what is essentially a commercial use.? Richards said she would rather see 10 houses built on the property for families to live in than a center for people to resolve conflicts. Cheryl Maki, a resident of Auburn and former long-time resident of the neighborhood, had a different perspective. ?I think it?s a perfect fit for the property to save it and preserve it. To have it zoned as open space would be perfect to me,? Maki said. Maki added that the home?s location far back from the road will help minimize noise and lights. Under the stipulations, the Batsels must conclude quarterly fundraisers at 10 p.m. and have lights out by 11 p.m. To accommodate any extra cars that will not fit in the parking lot they are building on the property, they have agreed to carpool in additional people. Interested parties are also to be notified of dates of fundraisers and other events 10 days ahead of time. Judy Melick said one appraiser told her using the home in that capacity could impact everyone?s property values in the desirable Robie Point neighborhood. ?I think if they cash in on these qualities it will be on our cost ? the neighbors' cost,? Melick said. Despite the mixed reaction from Auburn residents, the council took a united stance in approving the El Toyon Institute. They said because of the unprecedented stipulations in rezoning the property, many protections are built in for mitigating its impact on the neighborhood. Councilmember Keith Nesbitt said he believed residents opposed to the project would see it didn?t create as much of a change as they anticipated. ?There is a lot of anticipation about the effect something like this will have on a community or neighborhood area. I think those effects end up being really minimal,? Nesbitt said. ?I?m ready to take a leap of faith in support.? Reach Sara Seyydin at saras@goldcountrymedia.com, or follow her on Twitter @AJ_News.