County Staff favoritism toward Sufism Reoriented stacks deck against fair hearing of citizen appeals

sufism reoriented, sanctuary plans, walnut creek, contra costa politics,  Lashun CrossAt its Tuesday, February 14th meeting County Supervisors will approve rules for its hearing of appeals regarding the controversial Sufism Reoriented building project in Walnut Creek. Following Planning Commission approval of the project last fall, the County Administrator’s Office sent an e-mail to one of the appellants advising that, at the appeal hearing, each appellant would have 10 minutes to make a presentation to the Board. However, the rules presented by County Planner Lashun Cross, recommended for Board adoption at tomorrow’s meeting,  proposes time limits for presentations and rebuttals that grossly favor Sufism Reoriented and hobble citizen appeals, as follows:


Sufism Reoriented

(project applicant)

Area Residents

(project appellants)

Presentation Time

30 minutes

5 minutes

Rebuttal Time

30 minutes

3 minutes

It’s unclear whether Sufism Reoriented will be given an additional time because they, too, have filed an appeal.

This is a complex project and the individual issues under appeal involve technical matters.  The presentation time allowed to appellants – each of whom has paid a $125 fee for the hearing – is unreasonable and inadequate given the circumstances.  Further, the time restriction on appellants may be unprecedented; the Board’s standard practice is to allow appellants 10 minutes of presentation time.

Hmmm.  This appears to be yet another instance of Lashun Cross giving the Sufis unique and favorable treatment.  Is no one standing up and taking notice of what’s going on here? 

Adding insult to injury, the proposed rules also require up to 20 people at a time to step into the aisle and line up, requiring speakers to stand for up to 60 minutes.  This procedure poses problems for those unable to stand for long periods.  Under these circumstances those attending are best advised to formally request ADA reasonable accommodation in order to avoid pointless standing for prolonged periods.  Or, better yet, the county should designate an area for speakers such that the speaker queue is seated.

Should the Board approve the proposed rules, it will add further evidence of the county staff’s bias in favor of the moneyed interests backing the Sufi project, including David M. Overton, the CEO of Cheesecake Factory restaurant chain.  Even more disturbingly, Board approval of these rules may indicate the Board itself is biased in favor of the applicant.

Finally, if the Board approves the proposed rules Contra Costa residents will have every right to feel they’ve been “sold out” – because they have.  (Sorry, folks.  Unless you can afford to pay slick attorneys like Sandy Skaggs buckets of money to argue on your behalf, you just don’t count. )

 

 

Comments

  1. Voter26 says

    Just one more reason to re-organize the BOS by seating new people on three open seats.

  2. says

    The crux of the dispute on time here is: will each of the appellants who paid $125 to have their particular issue heard be give 7 minutes each or will the ten separate appellants have to figure out some way to combine all of their issues into a total of 7 minutes? If it is the latter, then, yes, those citizens have lost their right to an appeal.

    • says

      @Kris… Either way, having to fork over $125 to be heard is creepy. I thought poll taxes were unconstitutional. Could you imagine the stink if the BOS made Richmond residents pay $125 for their redundant statements during the Chevron tax assessment hearings?

  3. Patricia says

    I thought that the point of this particular hearing was to hear the appeals. So, the time allotted to appellants should not be viewed as unfair or as putting the proponent at a disadvantage.

    What the planning department was proposing was a fifty percent cut in the time COMMITTED TO by the county administrator’s office last November before the appeals were filed. Aren’t commitments worth anything today? Apparently not.

    And, it is absolutely insulting to the appellants to propose to cut their time in half and propose to give the proponents 50% more time to explain their project than they had at the planning commission level. This should give county residents pause about big brother government.

    Fairness should have been about hearing what appellants had to say.

    The proponent claimed it should have an equal amount of time to the appellants. The proponents had three years of almost unfettered access to county staff from the highest levels down. They had access to the conditions of approval before they were announced and lobbied the county about those. All this is documented in the Public Records Act request filed by the home owner’s organization.

    Where was the equal time for the neighborhood for three years?

    And, now sincere people who just wanted to bring facts and information to the supervisors, see their time cut.

    We are discussing less than an hour of the supervisors lives to fully hear appellants an a hearing for the appeals. Again, I have to ask: isn’t the point of a hearing about appeals to HEAR THEM?

    Doesn’t it make you wonder what is going on up in Martinez the rest of the time?

  4. Jerry says

    Wendy’s analysis was wrong. I listened to the Board of Supervisor’s debate this morning and those appealing the Planning Commission decision had more time than Sufism Reoriented in the initial staff proposal and were also granted more time in the final decision.

    Her attempt to frame this as 30 minutes versus 5 minutes was biased.

    The truth is that there are 10 appeals filed each of which originally had 5 minutes each allocated to them for a total of 50 minutes. Sufism had a total of 30 minutes to rebut 50 minutes of presentation. And the board increased this to 7 minutes per appeal point for a total of 70 minutes.

    Also, one of the members of the Board stated that they had been visited by both sides already. I’m sure both sides made the most of their time with the Supervisors. The Board member who mentioned that implied that there was nothing new expected at the actual hearing itself which is probably correct.

    So any attempt at portraying the hearing as a stand alone situation ignoring the meetings with the Supervisors and all the letters sent to the Supervisors is off base as well.

    • Wendy Lack says

      @ Jerry:
      You’re surely entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.

      Last November appellants were informed in writing by the CAO’s office that they would have up to 10 minutes to make a presentation at the appeal hearing.

      The rules proposed by staff, and modified today by the Board, provide less than the 10 minutes that appellants were led to believe they should expect.

      It is my understanding that each appellant is presenting a discrete, unique issue at the appeal — though the appeal documents are not yet available publicly to verify this, to my knowledge. Accordingly, each appellant has a reasonable expectation that s/he will have sufficient time (i.e., up to 10 min.) to present the specific issues pertinent to the appeal.

      Per the Board’s decision today, 7 minutes will just have to do because that is all that appellants will be allowed at next week’s hearing.

      Appellants have every right to expect their specific issues will be heard individually. Part of the problem here is the cattle-call approach, which detracts from an orderly process and reduces the likelihood that appellants will receive a fair hearing.

      Lest we forget: This unusual circumstance — having numerous project appeals — is a direct result of the severe unmitigated impacts this project will have on the neighborhood due to a flawed EIR and the county’s failure to satisfy CEQA requirements.

      Don’t blame the victims here. Residents whose rights are being trampled should not be blamed for the fact that there is widespread opposition to building this project under the inadequate conditions approved by the Planning Commission.

      We agree that the appeal hearing essentially will be a redux of the Planning Commission hearing. The EIR defects and deficiencies remain unchanged, just as they were last fall.

    • Jerry says

      Wendy’s comments illustrate why the Board of Supervisors cut the time allocated. When Wendy said that the “appeal hearing essentially will be a redux of the Planning Commission hearing”, this means that there will be 100 people basically repeating what others have said and what both sides have already communicated to the Supervisors in person and by mail.

    • Wendy Lack says

      Yes, Jerry, the scope of the issues has not changed — except for the invalid “parking lease agreement” between The Meher School and Sufism Reoriented, which voids the project’s parking plan and implicates the applicant’s veracity (http://www.cccounty.us/DocumentView.aspx?DID=6561). The Meher School’s lease with the Lafayette School prohibits subleasing public property, which the bogus “parking lease agreement” submitted by the Sufis to the county purports to do. So aside from these types of developments, the scope of the issues has not changed.

      Readers should note there are not “hundreds” of appellants — just 10 or 11 (including the Sufis themselves). It’s the time allotted to these appellants, each of whom has paid good money to have his/her appeal heard, that is at issue.

      “Hundreds” of comments by the general public is not the issue. IMHO non-appellants should have their time limited to 2 minutes . . . it’s the appellants themselves that have been cheated by the Board’s decision.

    • Jerry says

      Wendy, I was surprised by the Boards action in reducing the time allotted for the appellants. But in thinking it over, I think fairness has to be judged not only by the speaking time but by the entire process.

      I’m sure that there were thorough documents filed with the Board and that these documents were reviewed when you met with the Board members as one of them mentioned.

      To me, the public testimony is sort of like a summing up where you would review the evidence presented and tie together any points that you felt were important to tie together.

      My point is that it’s not a matter of 5, 7, 10 or even more minutes but having enough time and opportunity to make my points in written form, in one-on-one meetings and then publicly.

      We may differ on our answers, but I think that is the proper question.

    • Wendy Lack says

      I perceive that a big part of what’s driving the reaction to the Board’s decision is the history of unfettered access the applicant and its attorneys have had to county staff since 2008, when the approval process began.

      There’s evidence in county files that the applicant rarely accepted “no” for an answer and simply escalated issues until the county relented. Use of this “wear ‘em down” tactic appears to be the reason the applicant has received approval to build precisely as designed.

      Whether one views the applicant’s conduct to constitute “focused, effective assertiveness” or “badgering public officials under threat of litigation,” the record is clear that the applicant had far greater access to county decisionmakers over the past three years than did project opponents.

      The applicant is unified and has hired guns to work with laser-like focus to advance its cause; opponents are individuals who are neither unified nor able to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on high-priced legal counsel. After all, ordinary individuals have to go to work every day and cannot afford to “camp out” in Martinez to have their voices heard by county officials.

      It’s no wonder the hapless county staff, having been beaten with a RLUIPA-cudgel over a period of three years, has acceded to the applicant’s wishes on virtually every issue.

      It has been said that “the smallest minority on earth is the individual . . . those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.”

      It will be fascinating to see whom the Board chooses to represent at the upcoming appeal hearing — the moneyed developer with slick attorneys and political pull; or individuals who constitute the most vulnerable minority group on earth.

  5. Dorothy says

    The County should refund a significant portion of the appeal fee to each appellant if the Board decides to reduce the amount of time each appellant is allowed to speak.

  6. C.E. says

    Once again the Contra Costa County Planning Commission is attempting to restructure the standard operating procedures set forth by their own department. Changing the rules to favor the wealthy and powerful developers is becoming routine practice for the County Land Use Staff.

    Let us hope the the Supervisors have enough respect for due process to refrain from changing the published appeal format only one week prior to the appeal hearings. Unlike the county staff, elected officials should have enough political sense to show, at the very least, a token gesture of concern for the “little guys”

    • Wendy Lack says

      @ C.E.:
      One would hope the BOS would have show more than a “token gesture of concern” for taxpaying residents. Equal treatment is at the heart of this issue: zoning rules should apply to the applicant, just as they do to everybody else, and hearing rules should apply to both parties, just as they do to everybody else.

      Giving a “religious free pass” to the applicant by building this project per the conditions of approval (COA) established by the Planning Commission will come to no good over the long run. Traffic, parking and drainage impacts will plague the neighborhood and the two cities in the vicinity (Lafayette and Walnut Creek).

      At such time as the building is sold, it’s more likely than not that it will fall into disrepair because few owners can afford its high maintenance costs (e.g., the proposed grass-pave parking lot — http://sufismreoriented.org/new_sanctuary/green-building.htm).

      How, exactly, would any of these conditions benefit the county? Isn’t this yet another example of the county “kicking the can down the road” by failing to head off long-term problems?

      And why are the cities of Walnut Creek and Lafayette remaining silent on the matter, when the COA are so clearly inadequate in addressing the project’s parking needs?

  7. Patricia says

    What makes this worse, is that the County is proposing to cut the appellants’ time in half while increasing the proponent’s time to 30 minutes, which is fifty percent more than the 20 minutes they were given at the Planning Commission meeting.

    There are 10 appeals from the neighborhood. One was filed by the homeowner;’s association, and the other nine were filed by individuals acting at their own behest. The association did not even know who else was appealing or how many would be filed. How can an individual’s right to speak be marginalized and trivialized in this way?