My January article about a controversial San Francisco Bay Area church building project stimulated numerous questions from readers. Last fall the Contra Costa County Planning Commission approved the $20-million, 66,074-square-foot Sufism Reoriented sanctuary project to be built on 3.12 acres in a residential area of unincorporated Walnut Creek. Widespread community opposition prompted appeal of the Commission’s decision, scheduled for hearing later this month. Hundreds are expected to attend the appeal hearing, to be held in an 800-seat theater to accommodate the crowd. In response to reader inquiries, the following information is offered about Sufism Reoriented and its extraordinary building project.
What is Sufism Reoriented?
Sufism Reoriented, one of many Sufism orders in the West, was founded by and dedicated to the principles of the Indian mystic Meher Baba (born Merwan Shehariarji Irani, 1896-1969). Meher Baba’s teachings are non-denominational and most of his followers are not Sufi. Sufism Reoriented says that it is unconnected with the Islamic Sufism movement. Artistic expression is a hallmark of the group’s spiritual practice.
While visiting the United States in 1952, Meher Baba founded the group. In 1953 Sufism Reoriented was incorporated in the U.S. as a non-profit organization. Today it has about 500 members.
2000: Dream Sanctuary Project Has False Start
In anticipation of constructing a new sanctuary in Walnut Creek, Sufism Reoriented purchased several properties in the area including its current worship space and adjacent apartment buildings and homes. It acquired a total of 8 properties from 1975 to 1999.
In 2000 Sufism submitted a county application to build an 11,000 square foot combined sanctuary and parsonage home. The county planning department asked Sufism to consider modifications because it considered the project to be too tall, bulky and incompatible with the neighborhood. Apparently unwilling or unable to satisfy county building rules, in early 2002 Sufism Reoriented withdrew its building application.
2003: Sufism Reoriented Becomes a 500-Member Church, Reports Assets of $17 Million
After withdrawing its county building application in 2002, Sufism Reoriented sought and became qualified as a tax-exempt religious organization under the Internal Revenue Code. At that time Sufism reported it had 73 employees; no debt; revenues of $3,474,659; expenses of $3,792,176; and total assets of $17,137,004.
From 1999 to 2001 Sufism Reoriented had annual revenues of nearly $2.5 million from “gross receipts from admissions, merchandise sold or services performed, or furnishing of facilities in any activity that is related to the organization’s charitable, etc., purpose.”
Between 2002 and 2006 Sufism Reoriented acquired 6 additional properties in the vicinity of its current Walnut Creek sanctuary, bringing its total ownership in the area to 14 properties.
Church Buildings and Federal Law
After Sufism Reoriented changed its tax filing status from a non-profit corporation to a church, it became covered by a new federal law intended to protect religious freedoms of property owners. This law, known by the acronym “RLUIPA” (pronounced “ruh-loo-puh” and references the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Person Act of 2000), prohibits zoning and land use laws that treat religious institutions differently from other property owners. RLUIPA does not provide religious institutions with immunity from land use regulations but, instead, requires government to apply its legitimate zoning and building rules in a religion-neutral manner.
Over the past decade RLUIPA has complicated local land use decisions and generated litigation against cities and counties nationwide.
2008: New Sanctuary is Six Times Larger and has Complex Design
In 2008 Sufism Reoriented submitted a land use application for a new 66,074 square foot sanctuary designed by the same award-winning architect who designed the renowned 3,000-seat Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, California. This new $20 million project is more than six times larger than the earlier plan. It will be funded completely from the congregation’s savings and current member contributions, according to Sufism project director Bob Carpenter.
How Big Is It?
The innovative building design, inspired by the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., places about two-thirds (46,074 sq. ft.) of the building underground. The subterranean construction requires the excavation and removal of approximately 40,000 cubic yards of soil, the equivalent of a football field piled 20 feet high from one end to another.
Project opponents consider it poorly suited to the location. They note the Sufism project is slightly larger than the White House, which is located on 18 acres of land. By comparison, the proposed Sufism Reoriented sanctuary is on 3-acre parcel in a quiet residential neighborhood.
Project features include:
- A total of more than 59,000 square feet of useable space, almost as large as the primary residence at Hearst Castle;
- A 9,100 square-foot ballroom-size plaza for theatrical performances and large group dining;
- An 11,940 square-foot assembly hall, about the size of a drugstore, with capacity to hold up to 1,700 people seated and nearly 2,400 standing;
- A kitchen to prepare and serve group meals, about twice the size of a typical 2-car garage (1,850 sq. ft.).
- Dance and drama studios (2,200 sq. ft.);
- Video and audio production studios for use to shoot and edit videos, mix recordings and attach sound tracks (2,750 sq. ft.);
- Office space (3,095 sq. ft.);
- A library (2,656 sq. ft.);
- Two galleries (3,500 sq. ft.) and a rotunda (1,850 sq. ft.)
- Classroom space (1,065 sq. ft.);
- Women’s and men’s restrooms with a total of 43 toilet fixtures (toilets and urinals) with capacity to accommodate an assembly of 3,000 people
- A bookstore (1,450 sq. ft.);
- A café;
- Reception and multi-purpose rooms.
2011: Project Approval
The Sufism Reoriented’s project application has placed heavy demands on county staff responsible for its processing. Sufism employees, members, and attorneys have insisted on countless meetings with county officials and aggressively sought exceptions from building rules. For example, traffic safety recommendations from county engineers were disregarded in the final plans.
Further, Sufism Reoriented retained specialized legal counsel and its representatives often referred to the project as “a RLUIPA case”– though no litigation has been filed. Internal county staff memos express frustration regarding “some law” that Sufism Reoriented representatives invoked regularly to sidestep project requirements, such as relocation of utilities underground. Those close to the project, who have noted this pattern of conduct over the past three years, believe it represents a calculated effort by Sufism Reoriented to bully public officials.
The hard-hitting approach has paid off. In November 2011 the Contra Costa County approved the project essentially as designed despite the numerous concerns of area residents.
Notably, David M. Overton, founder and CEO of the Cheesecake Factory restaurant chain testified on behalf of the project at the Planning Commission hearing last fall. Overton, a Los Angeles resident, identified himself as a 40-year Sufism Reoriented member who has served on the group’s Board of Directors for the past 20 years. He said his involvement with the sanctuary project is, in part, financial.
Given the scope of this project, the current legal landscape, and the resources and business savvy of the project applicant, it is probable county officials felt pressured to placate Sufism Reoriented. In their appeal, area residents seek mitigation of project impacts, which include traffic safety, parking, drainage, and other zoning issues they contend the county has ignored.
This appeal will demand much from county officials who surely know that, whatever they decide, they are likely to face a court challenge.
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