Sufism’s controversial Walnut Creek, California building project was approved by County Supervisors a year ago amid strong protest from area residents. The enormous building, which includes more than 66,000 square feet of meeting, retail and classroom space – roughly the size of Hearst Castle – continues to raise safety and parking concerns for area residents.
During the past year the project site has been excavated and graded in preparation for construction. County Supervisors approved the project with 91 conditions that must be satisfied before a building permit is issued. Currently Sufism’s building plans are under review by County officials to verify project status regarding the conditions of approval.
Patricia Perry, a retired planning professional, is part of a team of neighbors closely monitoring the Sufism project to ensure code compliance. “We’ve been working on this project for more than two years, have attended every public hearing. We know this project inside out,” Perry says. “Unfortunately, County staff assigned to this project are unfamiliar with many issues, since they weren’t involved in public hearings before the planning commission and County Supervisors. That’s why we feel public oversight is essential to the process.”
Neighbors are disappointed by the County’s refusal to release records verifying that conditions have been met. “We know that once a building permit is issued, residents lose all leverage to ensure that promises made to us are kept,” Perry says. “The County says the public must wait until after the building permit is issued before the plans held by the Public Works Department can be viewed. But everyone knows that, by then, it’s too late to remedy anything overlooked.”
Concerned neighbors say that no other project has been handled this way. Public access to building plans is routinely available. As Perry puts it, “The County’s secrecy and unique treatment of this applicant breed suspicion and distrust.”
In recent months Perry and her neighborhood team have met with County Supervisor Candace Andersen, County staff and representatives from the Sufism project team. “None of our concerns are new. We raised these issues during the environmental impact process,” Perry says. “The County is complicit in helping the applicant steamroll over us, disregarding valid and significant concerns.”
These are some of the issues:
- Dangerous Entry on Blind Curve; Secret Building Plans
The entry/exit to the project is on a blind curve well-known to locals, many of whom avoid it. Neighbors say their safety fears have been minimized by County officials.
Last year the County authorized installation of temporary construction trailers at this dangerous location, aggravating the hazardous condition and increasing resident safety worries. At an October 10, 2012 neighborhood meeting with Sufism representatives and County staff, County engineer Warren Lai told residents that current safety conditions are “adequate” because they are temporary and will last only for the 2-3 year construction period. Accordingly, requests for relocation of the construction trailers were denied.
While County officials confirm building plans submitted by Sufism fail to meet code requirements for visibility – technically known as “sight distance” – they say compliance with the 250-foot sight distance requirement will be required once permanent construction is complete. However neighbors insist on verifying how compliance will be achieved before the County issues a building permit. The County has thus far refused.
“The County says it is concerned about public safety, but it seems they’re only paying lip service to legitimate and serious safety concerns,” Perry says. “Neighbors are entitled to receive proof that sight distance requirements are met before the building permit is issued. The County expects us to just trust them, but with this project it has betrayed our trust time and again.”
Perry also states that, according to the building plans originally submitted by Sufism, a car exiting the facility must pull out to the middle of the lane to even begin to see around the curve. “This is not a safe situation under any set of regulations and is certainly not considered safe under Caltrans guidelines,” she says. “Neighbors deserve the opportunity to verify how compliance will be achieved before this project is given the green light. Why the stonewalling? What is there to hide?”
After informal requests to review the plans, Perry made a public records request directly to County Supervisors at the Board’s December 11, 2012 public meeting. Nearly a month later, Perry still awaits a response despite the County’s obligation to respond within ten business days under state law.
- False Documents Used to Mislead County Officials
Lack of adequate parking for the project is a longstanding concern for area residents, particularly given the area’s narrow, winding streets and semi-rural conditions that lack sidewalks and streetlights. County officials required only 71 on-site parking spaces for a building that would ordinarily require over four times that amount. Certain County regulations – which some consider a loophole – drastically reduce on-site parking required because Sufism submitted a “Traffic Demand Management” (TDM) Program for carpooling and off-site parking. Notably, the TDM Program applies to all future owners of the property.
Last fall County officials approved Sufism’s TDM Program designating Lafayette School District property as its off-site parking area. However both the County and Sufism knew that such use is unauthorized because early last year the school district expressly prohibited it. Nevertheless, in November the County approved the project’s TDM Program in record time, apparently with no questions asked.
Lafayette School District officials indicate they knew nothing about the County’s approval regarding use of its property, which was not authorized by the District, until concerned residents raised the issue at its December 12, 2012 school board meeting. Residents have requested that school district and County officials communicate with one another, to verify the validity of Sufism’s off-site parking plan, but have received no assurances this will happen.
One member of Perry’s neighborhood oversight team (who declined to be named for this article) maintains it is improper for the Lafayette School District to allow use of public property for private purposes. He believes Sufism’s insistence on using public property to provide overflow parking for its facility would create liability for taxpayers. “Surely school board members know the District is the ‘deep pocket’ in this risk management scenario,” he says. “There’s no way around that fact.”
Further, he is concerned that The Meher School, which is affiliated with Sufism, leases the property from the District and has repeatedly violated the terms of its lease agreement. “The Meher School lease with the District prohibits subletting or entering into third party agreements,” he says. “Nevertheless, Meher School has twice executed a parking agreement with Sufism, for the purpose of obtaining a building permit. The school board is duty-bound to act immediately to prohibit use of public property for private purposes.”
Area residents also question why Sufism does not use one or more of the vacant properties it owns in the area to satisfy its parking needs.
- Insufficient Parking for Multi-Use Facility
For 50 years Sufism operated as a spiritually-oriented school for music, dance and other performing arts. It was only after the County’s rejection of Sufism’s initial building plans, and passage of a federal anti-discrimination law for church construction projects, that Sufism sought IRS qualification as a “church” in 2002.
Some observers – including Sufi critics of the Sufism Reoriented sect – regard this change in tax status as a calculated legal strategy to gain political leverage and ease approval of its oversized, under-parked multi-use building. At a minimum these circumstances raise questions about how the building will be used, since Sufism practices don’t fit the mold of a conventional church.
Joyce Coleman is an area resident who questions whether the project has adequate parking to support its varied activities. The initial traffic study recommended a total of 241 on-site parking spaces, including 125 spaces for the 5,000 sq. ft. assembly area and 116 spaces to support the 23,395 sq. ft. of classrooms, rehearsal areas, offices, dance studio, audio/video production studio, library, retail bookstore and plaza. Coleman finds it “totally unacceptable that the on-site parking requirement was reduced to 71 spaces using a TDM Program that only addresses assembly event parking. This completely ignores the 23,395 sq. ft. of the building to be used for rehearsals, classes, studio production work and retail sales, for which there is no historical parking information available.”
Coleman and her neighbors expect parking problems inevitably will arise once the project is completed. “Eventually the County may need to develop a residential parking permit system,” Coleman says. “How else can residents be assured street parking is available in front of their own homes?”
- Outdated County Codes: Who’s On First?
In the 1990’s Contra Costa County adopted a strict water conservation ordinance. The Sufism project includes extensive landscaping that fails to meet the standards required by the County’s ordinance.
In response to an inquiry from Perry, County officials advised that the County’s adopted water conservation ordinance is no longer in effect because, in 2010, County staff decided to begin following less restrictive statewide standards. Remarkably, this decision was simply implemented by staff without ever consulting County Supervisors. The 2010 state law offered an option to retain the County’s more stringent standards or adopt the statewide standards. While the County water conservation code remains on the books, County staff claim it no longer needs to be followed.
Perry believes this story illustrates the inefficiency of large bureaucracies. “It’s no secret that some County codes are outdated. However, it’s truly troubling to learn that the County’s practices are being changed by staff, without proper authority,” Perry says. She has requested that County counsel rule on the matter, but has no indication an opinion is forthcoming.
- “The Big Pass”
It’s no wonder that public dealings with Contra Costa County are often characterized by confusion and distrust. As one resident who lives near the Sufi project puts it, “The County has let us down by giving this project ‘The Big Pass.’ It violates everything from the tree preservation ordinance to standard parking requirements. Here’s a $20 million project applicant that is not required to place utilities underground, while the County requires residential property owners to do so for home remodels. It’s demoralizing and risks turning us all into scofflaws. What’s the point of playing by the rules and applying for permits when County laws are selectively enforced?”
While Perry and her project watchdog team await a response to her County records request, tension mounts. “To our knowledge the County has not yet issued Sufism Reoriented a building permit,” Perry says. “While we understand that time is money for a builder, we also believe residents are justified in demanding answers to legitimate issues. We don’t want to delay the project, we just want answers,” Perry says.