Appeal Offers Last Hope for Endangered Neighborhood
In a December 2011 issue, the Wall Street Journal ran an article about the Walnut Creek Sufi Sanctuary building project in the San Francisco Bay Area. But rather than examining the argument behind public opposition to the project, the reporter accepted the premise that all public objections to the project result from religious discrimination. The article missed the real story. In anticipation of the appeal hearing later this month with the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors, it's important to set the record straight.
In this issue, there are two competing interests: private property rights of church organizations and those of neighboring property owners. In today's complex legal landscape, the threat of bad press and litigation can intimidate authorities into sacrificing one interest for another.
An excellent illustration of this tension is the proposed $20-million, 66,074-square-foot Sufism Reoriented sanctuary project, planned to be built on 3.12 acres in unincorporated Walnut Creek. Last November, despite strong neighborhood opposition, the Contra Costa Planning Commission approved the project in a 4-2 vote. The Commission's decision has been appealed to the Board of Supervisors.
The grounds for appeal lie in the fact that, despite hours of public testimony regarding the project's substantive effects involving safety, parking, traffic, building capacity, and large-scale excavation, the Planning Commission hurried to approve the project "as is" without due consideration of its impacts or reasonable mitigation. Notably, the Commission overlooked substantial flaws and omissions in the final environmental impact report (FEIR) and, by its fast-tracked scheduling, deprived the public of due process. Further, Sufism Reoriented submitted defective documents to the Commission as part of its campaign to rush project approval.
By attributing religious bias and NIMBYism ("Not in My Backyard" resistance to change) to project opponents, Sufism Reoriented seeks to intimidate public officials into exempting them from critical zoning requirements. In its hearing of this appeal, the Board must fulfill its responsibility to ensure that Sufism Reoriented receives equal treatment under the law -- not a "religious exemption" of sorts that would be both illegal and unjust.
With over 2,200 documents on file and hundreds of residents expected to testify at the appeal hearing, fashioning a compromise that satisfies all parties is a formidable task. Success can be achieved with measured deliberation of the facts.
Concerns about the project include the following:
Submission of Invalid Documents to Satisfy Parking Requirements
As approved, the project requires 125 parking stalls for the 66,074-square-foot building; however, the plans provide for only 71 stalls. To satisfy the 54-stall difference, Sufism Reoriented represented to the county that it had arranged to lease additional off-site parking at the nearby Meher School.
The lease agreement was signed by Sufism Reoriented and the Meher School principal. The Planning Commission relied on this lease agreement between Sufism Reoriented and the Meher School in approving the project. However, the agreement is invalid because the Meher School sits on public property and leased on terms that prohibit permanent subleasing of its parking area. While Sufism Reoriented may have been uninformed, the Meher School principal knew or should have known that subleasing of public property is prohibited under the terms of the school's lease.
During Planning Commission hearings, public testimony questioning the validity of this agreement was ignored. Following approval of the project, concerned residents learned that Meher School officials have since been notified by the property owners that the school parking lot cannot be used to satisfy the project's overflow parking needs.
The project site is in an older residential area without sidewalks or street lights, with narrow, winding streets, blind curves, and limited street parking. Consequently, area property owners seek to ensure that the project's safety needs are adequately addressed.
The Planning Commission ignored the fact that the project entrance is located on a blind curve. The Commission required no mitigation of this hazardous condition.
Two-thirds of the building is underground, requiring extensive excavation. Unavoidably the underground design gives rise to concerns about soil instability and damage to adjacent public and private structures, as well as associated construction noise, traffic, and pollution.
The project's parking plan requiring 125 stalls is inadequate. County parking rules require one parking space for every 40 square feet of gross floor area. For a project of this size -- 66,074 square feet, or roughly comparable to the square footage of Walnut Creek's City Hall building -- county parking ordinances require a minimum of 295 onsite parking stalls and could require 1,500 or more.
Sufism Reoriented's claim that its 350 members will "pledge" to walk rather than drive to its sanctuary is not sufficient.
Architect's Rendering Deceptively Understates Project Size and Visual Impact
The project's unique design features 13 wide, white rounded roof domes that range in height from 20 to 35 feet. The 35-foot height of the largest dome is taller than any of the area's surrounding buildings. At night the domed roof will be illuminated, giving the appearance of an immense glowing spaceship.
Artwork circulated to gain community support for the project understates the project size. For example, one picture featured in the Sufism Reoriented Winter 2008 newsletter, which was widely distributed in the community, portrays the size of the building out of scale with the size of the people also pictured.
During public hearings, the Planning Commission heard public testimony about the misleading artwork circulated by Sufism Reoriented. Some who signed support petitions based upon viewing the artwork now oppose the project because they were deceived by pictures that understated the actual project size.
Many area residents have asked the county to require use of "story poles" -- a tool used to evaluate various aspects of building projects, such as mass, bulk and scale, and neighborhood compatibility -- to give county decision-makers and the public more complete information. The county has disregarded the request.
Refusal to Compromise
Public testimony before the Planning Commission was offered by Pascal Kaplan, a member of the Sufism Reoriented congregation, whose graduate studies in theology include study of "unintended religious bias." In his testimony, Kaplan stated that the sanctuary design is "sacred" and therefore not subject to change. He compares the project's design features, including its curvilinear design and white domed roof, to the symbolism of a Christian church's cross-shaped floor plan or the use of a Star of David on a Jewish temple. Kaplan stated that objections to design elements are evidence of "unintentional religious bias." However, his rationale is flawed.
Since its founding, Sufism Reoriented has used variety of locations to conduct worship services. None of these locations have featured a curvilinear design or a white domed roof. In fact, the group's current Walnut Creek worship sanctuary is a converted restaurant, and its Washington, D.C. sanctuary is a stately mansion of traditional design.
Kaplan's assertion that the project's design elements are "sacred faith symbols of our congregation" does not mean that those design elements are not subject to change to comply with county building rules. The reality is that any structure built in the county must adhere to the same rules, considerations, and public process. Changing features such as height, size, color, or the intensity of roof illumination does not infringe on religious freedom.
What's at stake is not religious freedom, but rather the principle of equal treatment under the law. Zoning regulations apply to all developments; the law provides no "religious exemption" from building rules.
Sufism Reoriented has been in Walnut Creek since the early 1970s, and many residents have lived in the area for 40+ years. There is no evidence of historical tension, harassment, or religious intolerance between Sufism Reoriented members and the greater community. It seems that this once-peaceful neighborhood has been disrupted by one thing: a building proposal which most non-Sufi residents consider poorly suited to the area unless its impacts are mitigated.
An appeal process focused on facts will be the key to successful resolution of this controversy.
Wendy Lack resides in Contra Costa County, California and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.