Appeal of Sufi sanctuary plans in Walnut Creek should be based on facts and equal treatment

sufism reoriented walnut creekIn 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.    

The Objections

With over 2,200 pages of 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.

Safety Concerns

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

sufism reoirented walnut creek misrepresentation of plansThe 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.

This article was originally published on American Thinker.

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Comments

  1. says

    As Bullwinkle would ask, “Fanmail from some flounder?” I date myself. Yes Wendy offers solid arguments and writing and is a trusted contributor here at H2C. Thanks for your praise!

  2. Beth Ward says

    I was very interested to read this article, as I follow her comments here on Halfway to Concord with regularity and I think she is one of the few critical thinkers here in Contra Costa who has not been bought off by special interest money.

    However, since I have been following the Sufi sanctuary project for some time as a Saranap resident (and I am not a member of the Sufi group), I am familiar with the 20″+ tall stack of documents they gave the county that went into the EIR. The amount of info the Sufis gave to the county was, as a county employee stated, ridiculous for a project of this size – it never happens. And yet the Sufis went to great lengths to cover every point of dispute.

    As such, I am having a hard time understanding how Ms. Lack came to the conclusion that there were “defects” in the FEIR.

    I reluctantly have to ask:

    1) Is Ms. Lack sufficiently educated about Environment Impact Reports to have come to that conclusion?
    2) Did Ms. Lack herself sit down and review every document that was submitted by Sufism Reoriented to the county such that she could arrive at such a conclusion?

    Unfortunately, there is nothing in this article that suggests to me that Ms. Lack did more than re-surface the claims made by others; and in fact, I think if one reviews everything that has already been printed on the matter, one would find a whole lot of idea lifting.

    • Wendy Lack says

      @ Beth Ward:

      My article is based on research of the record, thus it is not intended to offer new information. In any event, I expect all of the issues will be presented in detail at the appeal hearing next month.

      From my records review, what struck me is the applicant’s (and its project supporters) attribution of a “religious bias” motive to project opponents, though proof of such a motive is not evident. Further, the name-calling directed at opponents by the applicant (and its project supporters), county planning staff and even some Planning Commissioners – e.g., “NIMBYs” – is at best, unhelpful and, at worst, done deliberately to malign and marginalize project opponents and effectively bulldoze over legitimate concerns of area residents.

      I spoke out on this issue for the purpose of urging a focus on facts rather than use of accusatory language and innuendo that only increases polarization of the parties.

      The applicant’s great financial resources, when coupled with its frequent reference to “religious bias”, raises a concern that county officials [understandably] may be intimidated by an implicit threat of litigation from an applicant with extraordinarily deep pockets and, as a result, may have given the applicant preferential treatment in the project approval process. Preferential treatment is both unlawful and unjust.

      Such concerns are among those that prompted me to write the AT article. Wealthy developers throwing their weight around is nothing new. Wealthy developers who use an implicit threat of religious discrimination litigation to bully public officials to gain preferential treatment is a new and disturbing twist.

  3. says

    If this had been a building project for a Christian church, it would have never been approved. Government has a real agenda at all levels to integrate all kinds of paganism into mainstream US society.
    Here in El Sobrante, the Buddhists want to build a huge “sanctuary” on Castro Ranch Rd. We already have one of the largest Sikh temples in the US on an earthquake prone hill overlooking El Sobrante. It is just above a Baptist church which has been here for many years and has to endure loud chanting, trash in the parking lot and lots of traffic.