Scientologists leery of zoning change

The San Francisco Church of Scientology is “suspicious” that a proposed zoning restriction may be intentionally tailored to block its expansion in North Beach.

Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin drafted an ordinance that would force any religious organization to undergo a difficult review process in order to occupy ground floor space in North Beach’s Jackson Square area.

“It’s suspicious. That’s about all I can say about it,” said Jeffrey Quiros, president of the Church of Scientology of San Francisco. He added that the proposed tougher zoning law “may have stopped us from buying the building we have now.”

Three years ago, the Church of Scientology purchased a 30,000-square-foot building at 701 Montgomery St. With the increasing popularity of Scientology, the church is looking to expand by purchasing the building across the street, the 17,000-square-foot Colombo Building at 1 Columbus Ave. That building, which was built in 1912, is owned by City College, which had purchased the building for $1.7 million in 1998, intending to demolish it to build a campus branch. City College abandoned the idea and now wants to sell it. The building will be placed on the market in the next two months, according to Peter Goldstein, City College’s chief operating officer.

Peskin insists the zoning change has nothing to do with his views on Scientology. The ordinance was approved Wednesday by the Board of Supervisors Land Use and Economic Development Committee with recommendation for approval. It could come before the full board for adoption as early as next week.

“They’ve been running around saying this was aimed at them. It’s not aimed at them. It’s aimed at continuing the type of land uses that have existed for 100 years on Columbus Avenue,” Peskin said, adding that he would rather see “the little funky clothing store on the corner.”

The church often finds its way into headlines, as its most well-known proponent is Hollywood actor Tom Cruise.

Quiros shrugged off any controversy surrounding the Church of Scientology, a group founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, and said its presence is welcomed by the neighboring North Beach businesses.

The Jackson Square area is covered in a “special use district,” which holds businesses to strict zoning guidelines designed to preserve the character of the neighborhood. Peskin’s ordinance would expand the district to include the Colombo Building and would also require all “institutional uses” — such as schools, medical marijuana clinics or religious groups — to undergo a hearing before the Planning Commission, whereas now they can obtain a permit without full review.

Quiros said the Church of Scientology would be a fitting owner of the building, considering it successfully restored the building it now occupies, and that the group brings thousands to the area, boosting neighborhood business.

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