Sufism Reoriented Sanctuary Plan Misrepresents Parking To County Planners

sufism reoriented, no parking, sanctuary plans, walnut creek, contra costa countyThe Sufism Reoriented sanctuary project in unincorporated Walnut Creek is making news again.  It turns out the Planning Commission approval of the project last fall was based on false statements made by church officials, according to a letter sent Friday by project opponents to the Board of Supervisors. The letter, sent by a group of residents who live in the vicinity of the proposed building project, asks the Board to decertify and correct the environmental impact report before recirculating it for public comment.

As approved, the Sufism Reoriented project requires 125 parking stalls for the 66,074-square-foot building; however, the plans provide for only 71 stalls on site. 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 located on property owned by the Lafayette School District.

In a letter dated February 15, 2012, Lafayette School District Superintendent Fred Brill told Supervisor Gayle Uilkema:

  In an e-mail to [church official] Pascal Kaplan dated September 16, 2011 I made clear that [the District is] not authorizing the Meher School to enter into a third-party agreement with Sufism Reoriented, or any other group, regarding the use of fields, facilities or parking lot.

About one week after Brill sent this e-mail to the church, the county issued the final environmental impact report which included the bogus parking lease. It is unknown whether Sufism Reoriented notified county staff or the Planning Commission that the parking lease was invalid, though public testimony before the Commission questioned how Meher School, as a tenant, could legally sublet the parking lot.

Ten opponents of the project have appealed the Commission’s approval of the controversial project.  In addition, Sufism Reoriented filed one appeal seeking to increase the numbers of trucks concurrently permissible during construction.  A hearing with the Board of Supervisors will begin at 9:00am on Tuesday, February 21st at the Lesher Center’s Hoffman Theatre in Walnut Creek. The county arranged the hearing at this location to accommodate the large numbers of area residents expected to attend.

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  1. says

    43 bathrooms is quite a lot for a congregation of 350. It would seem this group has much larger plans for attendance which makes those 71 parking spaces laughable.

  2. Wendy Lack says

    @BethWard:

    - Sufism Reoriented Organization Has Deep Pockets

    When Sufism Reoriented became an IRS-recognized church in 2003 – after operating as a non-profit corporation since the 1950’s – it reported annual income three years in a row of about $2.5 million. It also reported more than $17 million in assets.

    Sufism has spent big bucks on architectural design and attorney’s fees. Cheesecake Factory CEO David M. Overton is also offering financial support, as he referenced in his Planning Commission testimony last fall.

    Individual Sufism members may have limited personal means, but the Sufism Reoriented organization has vast wealth. Sufism Reoriented’s deep pockets are the reason it can afford to build such a lavish, expensive, subterranean project. Sufism’s bankroll is also why it presents such a formidable litigation threat to the county (including public works staff).

    - Parking Calculated Contrary to County Parking Ordinance

    The county off-street parking ordinance requires the following: “Assembly halls without fixed seats: One [parking] space for each 40 square feet of gross floor area.”

    The county’s parking calculations for this project do not follow its own ordinance. Instead of using the gross floor area of the worship space in its calculation, the county arbitrarily used only 5,000 square feet – less than half of the total area of the 11,940 square-ft. room.

    The calculation method used for this project is unprecedented in county history.

    In fact, none of California’s other 57 counties calculate parking requirements using a portion of a room. All use the gross floor area. Period.

    To date county officials have not persuasively explained why they did this. The portion of the room excluded by the county was the perimeter of the circular room, beyond the columns that line the center are of the room. It’s notable that 16 of 26 of these columns are non-load-bearing. This means that they are decorative only and may be easily removed. Indeed, the non-essential columns may never be built if there is a desire to maximize the room’s useable space.

    If you apply the county parking ordinance as written, you find that it requires 299 parking spaces (11,940 square foot assembly hall divided by 40 square feet =298.5).

    By the way, the room in question is about the size of a chain drugstore, with capacity to hold up to 1,706 people seated and nearly 2,388 standing (per fire regulations allowing 7 sq. ft. per person seated and 5 sq. ft. per person standing).

    Does anyone really believe that 71 on-site parking spaces will suffice?

    - Planning for the Long Run

    The Sufism Reoriented sanctuary is a project designed to last for generations. It has been designed by award-winning architects with the intention of winning awards.

    Today’s land use planners adhere to a core principle of planning for the long run. The Sufism project will be here for many decades to come and its impacts will be long-term.

    Someday Sufism Reoriented may sell this building. It’s fair to assume that no future owner would be similarly-situated to the Sufis, many of whom live within walking distance. That’s why its parking impacts must be addressed up-front, to accommodate parking needs today and in the future under new ownership.

    Doubtless the church that built the 3,000-seat Crystal Cathedral in Orange County never anticipated that they would have to sell it. Yet now they are, due to financial hard times.

    So it is with the Sufism Reoriented sanctuary. Its impacts must be mitigated for the long run.

    In its hearing of the appeal, the Board of Supervisors is obligated to mitigate the project’s impacts with the long term in mind.

    • Beth Ward says

      Ridiculous.

      So they have $20 million, saved over 35 years that’s $571,428 per year not including an interest they may have gained on the money. Divide that by the number of people in their location in Walnut Creek (= 350), and that’s an average of about $1630 per member per year that the members could have contributed to get to $20 million. Not a whole lot. If the Cheesecake guy donated let’s say $5 million, then the requirement each year by everyone else would have been just $1225 or so.

  3. Carol says

    “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive”

    It appears that the Sufi leadership have dug themselves into a hole with this one.

    This surly reveals that they are not the so honest, above board, model folks that they purport to be. Lies cost a lot to maintain, the truth is free!

  4. Beth Ward says

    He Wendy –

    I hear you on the big developers, but honestly, my take is slightly different. The Sufis drive tiny Toyotas for the most part as far as I can tell; they are not some big, out of town wealthy developers. This is a total mischaracterization of who they are from someone who has known them for over 25 years. They are scrimpers and they saved the money over a long period of time.

    What my sense of the whole PR side of things is, and this may include or not include how they dealt with the county people, is that they were totally unprepared for the level of opposition they encountered. They’ve had a learning curve on it. They want/need the building to be built to the specifications laid out by their spiritual leader and to that tend, I am sure they have been stubborn. I would be as well if my priest laid out a plan.

    Since I have not talked to the PW people, I can only say that they did not seem to have any problems with the situation when they were asked direct questions by the Planning Commissioners. All this behind the scenes discord that you seem to have sniffed out appears only to come on the heels of the opposers having run out of things to argue about.

    Having been someone who actually researched the parking issues, here’s the thing: the county parking program is one that THEY are pushing; it was established as a priority community program to get people to stop using cars so much. So the Sufis embraced it, heavily, and the program has as its goal the actual number of parking spaces needed.

    It does not matter if the old calculations might show that the Sufis need 20,000 spots, or how much of the building was used to calculate the number of spots. I the Sufis could demonstrate that they only need 75 or whatever, that is precisely allowed under the county’s parking traffic demand reduction program. The Sufis played by the rules on the traffic reduction program which is why the county staff approved it.

    • Patricia says

      Sufism Reoriented did not play by the rules. They made up rules, and then they had the two very expensive attorneys at every hearing to make sure that the County knew it would be sued. By the applicant’s own admission the attorneys spent over 200 hours meeting with County officials. Meeting is one word. We would say that influencing, badgering, and pressuring are better words. And, that is about 195 hours more than the opponents had.

      The neighbors who oppose this project at this location did not run out of things to say. They were in effect silenced by the County who lied to the appellants. The appellants asked for and received a written statement in November, before filing their appeals, that they would receive ten minutes to present their appeals and five minutes to rebut. This is the County norm.

      Eight days before the hearing, after preparing for months, the County recommended cutting the appellants to five minutes and three minutes to rebut.

      The easiest way to silence your critic is to limit his ability to speak.

      For example, the applicant, as late at the day of the Zoning Administrator’s hearing, needed a solution to the problem that the project extended 1.5 feet into the public right of way, In case you did not know, that is not OK.

      The applicant’s attorney stated that the lower level staff would not “conform.” What that means is that someone over at the County offices knew the difference between right and wrong.

      But, like everything else on this project, the problems evaporate when you have unfettered access to department heads.

      This is one example of information that I was unable to present because my time was cut.

  5. Beth Ward says

    Hi Wendy –

    Still surprised you have taken this issue on with such gusto and you admitted that you had not read the FEIR, so ??.

    Couple things:

    1) you ask if the COunty has ever dealt with anything similar and the answer is yes, within the last year or two they approved a far less organized effort, sans EIR, with parking program to build the El Sobrante Sikh temple addition; this was/is a building planned to be far more obtrusive both to the neighbors and to those driving by

    2) Here’s my take on this newest effort to derail the project: even if the Sufis can not for whatever reason create a lease with the Meher Schools for parking, I clearly recall that the parking provision was approved with the following caveat: if for whatever reason the Sufis could not use the parking lot at the Meher Schools, they agreed that they would find another location from which to conduct the parking program. So while I do not really know the details of if or when the parking letters went back and forth, it’s kind of mute point when you realize that the BOS approved the Sikh’s parking program on a verbal nod (which I know because I watched that hearing’s video)

    Also, since I have followed this project for 3 or 4 years since I actually LIVE in the neighborhood, this all comes across as just the latest nimby effort to find some sort of technicality to push it off its tracks.

    Hearing from Planning Commissioner Clark ( an attorney who has served on the PC for decades) should really put all of this to bed for most folks. He said that even if RLUIPA was not involved, the Sufis had done all the work needed to get a yes from him regardless of RLUIPA,

    • Wendy Lack says

      @BethWard:

      Thanks for sharing your views and for reading my articles on Halfway. Always happy to have readers!

      Here’s my skin in the game:
      I am offended any time a wealthy developer bullies public officials into doing his bidding. In this case the weapon of choice is RLUIPA and the threat of a costly lawsuit the county can ill-afford. Moneyed interests throwing their clout around and intimidating public officials is nothing new . . . in fact, sadly it’s regularly in the newspaper headlines.

      Using religion as a cudgel to browbeat government officials is a new low.

      County files contain many examples of public works staff voicing concerns about this project’s serious safety problems. The trouble is this: public works’ concerns were ignored by the project planners running the show.

      I don’t know about you, but these kinds of things make me very uneasy about who’s looking out for the public welfare. When government is more committed to pleasing big developers and avoiding lawsuits than serving the public interest, confidence in its legitimacy erodes and “government to the highest bidder” rules. Not good.

      The fact that I don’t live in the neighborhood affected by this mega-project – which, incidentally, is absurdly overbuilt, about the size of Hearst Castle on a tiny 3-acre parcel – is irrelevant. My interest is in promoting good government which, sadly, is not evident here.

      The Board has an opportunity to set things right. Good government advocates like me expect them to rise to the occasion.

      However, if the Board fails to take decisive action to protect the public welfare by mitigating the impacts of this project, no one should expect this situation to quietly fade away. When a project faces opposition this strong, widespread and well-documented, you can be sure that you haven’t heard the last of it.

    • Patricia says

      Beth,

      You give the Sikh Temple as an example of a similar project. But, the Sikhs did not lie or misrepresent to get their application approved.

      Also, they applied for variances.

      And, they did not try to talk the County into doing something which no other county in California does–and Contra Costa has never done before–which is to base parking on less than an entire room.

      By the way, the Sikh temple has columns in its worship room, but they did not ask to have the parking based on only part of the worship room.

  6. lauren7black says

    What is going on here? A 66K square foot building in a residential area?
    Why is this getting approved at all ?

  7. Patricia says

    The whole point of an Environmental Impact Report is to ascertain the impacts so that the decision makers will be informed and and the public can comment accordingly.

    But, when information is hidden or held back to the stage beyond when the public can comment, SOME IS WRONG WITH THE PROCESS.

    In this case, the public is being denied its right to comment on what is being proposed. The County’s position is that “as long as Sufism Reoriented acquires parking somewhere” by the time they apply for a building permit, everything is hunky dory!!!!

    Can you think of any other project where a decision like this would be delayed to a point in the process where the public can have no input?

    Is it really OK to proceed through four Planning Commission meetings without disclosing the truth? What is our approval process coming to?

    What about a supplemental EIR? Wouldn’t that be appropriate?

    One of our group said it best. The County’s position is,
    “No, Problem. You want it; youv’e got it.”

  8. C.E. says

    Honesty is always the best policy. No matter how cleverly folks try to bury it, the truth has a way of rising to the surface. It seems in his zeal to get his project approved, Pascal Kaplan chose to withhold documents that would damage the chances of the proposed land use approval. Relevant documents that were hidden have now been revealed.

    The decision to approve the Sufism Reoriented Land use permit was based on false (purposely incomplete) representation and thereby not valid. In response to public requests, the Lafayette School District presented full disclosure of all relevant details directly to the County Supervisors.

    The public trust is built upon truth, full disclosure and objective administration of the law. The whole truth is ringing loud and clear…… The voting public now expects the County Supervisors to uphold their fiduciary obligation to declare the project as approved invalid.

  9. Wendy Lack says

    Does anyone know whether there a precedent for this with Contra Costa County?

    How has the County responded when other project applicants have been found to have submitted false documents to the Planning Commission in order to gain project approval?