Sufism Reoriented sanctuary project in Walnut Creek poses litigation threats

David M. Overton, Cheesecake Factory, Sanford M. Skaggs, Bingham McCutchen, Marie A. Cooper, Perkins Coie, Sufism Reoriented, Meher Baba, Sufism, RLUPIA, Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, Saranap, Saranap Preservation Society, Saranap Homeowners Association, Contra Costa County, Philip Johnson/Alan Ritchie Architects, Alan RitchieMy 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, David M. Overton, Cheesecake Factory, Sanford M. Skaggs, Bingham McCutchen, Marie A. Cooper, Perkins Coie, Meher Baba, Sufism, RLUPIA, Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, Saranap, Saranap Preservation Society, Saranap Homeowners Association, Contra Costa County, Philip Johnson/Alan Ritchie Architects, Alan Ritchie

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.

Tweet hashtag:  #wcsufibuilding

 

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Comments

  1. Don says

    All the “it’s not about religious bigotry” claims got me interested enough to dig a little deeper on this story. A search of other stories brought up a very interesting post on the KQED story that contradicts the claims of “it’s only about land use”:

    Tom Newsom stated:

    “Some people who were opposed stood up in the Planning Commission meeting and said one or more of the following things:
    1) It’s a spaceship
    2) It’s a mosque
    3) They’ll be teaching the Koran
    4) it’s an underground bunker
    5) it’s not as though it’s got a cross or a steeple
    and other ugly, anti-Sufi things.

    Until about last month on the saveoursaranap website, (it’s since been taken down) it was implied that the Murshida was a wicked witch with an evil band of flying monkeys. This specific article was repeatedly referred to in the Crazy in Suburbia blog debates in the comments section, so it’s existence is verifiable in that manner – if it had not existed, believe me, other commentators would have said so. I would bet someone in Sufism has a copy; perhaps ask for it

    The point? Casting a group as subhuman has long been a tactic to dehumanize a religious or ethnic group. It was done towards the Vietnamese in the 70s and during WWII against both the Japanese and the Jews in the propaganda of the day. Both sides were guilty of it then. I did not think we would ever see anyone stoop to it in Walnut Creek, but even an old guy can be surprised at what people who are opposed will do.

    This IS about religious bigotry: it is being distracted about claims of code violations, but the opposition has just learned to sideline the most blatant bigots so they would not get caught on camera doing it twice. Reviewing the Planning Commission videos will show anyone the truth if they want to see it. It’s also in the Crazy in Suburbia blog debates comment sections….”

    The whole story is here: http://blogs.kqed.org/newsfix/2012/02/23/walnut-creek-residents-and-sufi-congregation-clash-over-new-sanctuary/

    So, good luck with the “we’re no bigots” argument. It did not take me long to find that and I’d bet the supervisors know how to do a web search too.

    • says

      The statement that the http://www.saveoursaranap.org website has been taken down is not true. It has never been taken down; it has been up continuously since August 19, 2008. It has had two redesigns, one on June 24, 2010 and the most recent on January 11, 2012.

      The article referenced was posted on November 9, 2011 and did not imply that the Murshida was a wicked witch. It referred to the development team proposing and designing the Sufism Reoriented Sanctuary as Wizards; here’s what it said in the single reference in the article about witches:

      “Response after response from the development team of the Wizards tell us Saranap Munchkins that we’d better accept the proposed design and development, because if we don’t, we will be branded as anti-Sufism. We are being characterized as hostile witches, creating fear and even hatred of Sufism Reoriented.”

      You can read the entire article, reprinted today on the Save Our Saranap website, Wizards, flying monkeys, witches, and all, by going to http://www.saveoursaranap.org and clicking on “The Wizards of Saranap” in the index on the left side of the home page. You’ll find that the Murshida isn’t named or referenced or implied about in the article. Is this just one more attempt at distortion? That’s for you to decide.

    • Tom says

      First, no one said the site was down – I said the article had been removed, maybe I should have been a bit clearer, but now it is back today, and I think anyone can see that it is disparaging in its terminology, referring to Sufis as flying monkeys. As such, my view stands that the article is referencing the story of the Wizard of Oz (because it says so on the byline) and the negative themes therein. I believe my view is entirely supported both by your post here and the article that had been removed.

      To emphasize what was going on back then, I am going to report what “Old Fart” re-posted on the Crazy in Suburbia blog from March 2009 – when the issue was fresh and there were flyers being distributed by SOS (or someone like them) referring to the Sufis in similar disparaging terms.
      _____________________________________________

      ” Anonymous said… to Anon 10:39

      Ok, first – agreeing to stipulate that you reviewed the SOS website and did not find the word cult on it, and second, agreeing that indvs here should not be confused with the SOS group, let’s then talk about what IS on the SOS site:

      It is inferred that Sufis are “little children” and repeatedly inferred to as “little devils”. People linking religious group with the word “devil” is just not funny and implies a lot of bigotry.

      In an allegory of the Wizard of Oz, the Sufis are referred to as deceitful “Wizards”, as in “Hiding behind their cloak of “community good-deeds”, the Wizards are pulling the levers of deceit again”

      AND further, the Sufis are referred to as “flying monkeys”. If you recall, the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz attack Dorothy’s group and take them by force to an evil witch.

      Since the allegory made on the site is so complete, I believe calling the Sufis “flying monkeys” is a not very veiled attempt to infer that SOS thinks Dr. Conner is an evil witch – and honestly, I simply can not believe a group of adults would think making such an reference is an ok thing to do when arguing over what should be built on a church site.

      SOS also stated that:

      “Sufism Reoriented is asking us to suspend reality and make-believe”

      “Sufism Reoriented leaders have bombarded neighbors with press releases, expensive newsletters, neighborhood meetings and one-on-one visits full of misinformation and misrepresentations.”

      “Yet since first announcing its building plans, the childlike deviousness of
      Sufism Reoriented leadership continues into the holiday season.”

      SOS also calls the SCA board a “new hand-picked SCA-Sufi Board” when in fact that simply was not what happened there.
      _____________________________________________

      So not only do we have a point of view that was raised at the time, but we have four additional assertions that used to be on the SOS site that appear to not be there any longer. I had not even remembered most of them.

      Tom

    • Wendy Lack says

      @Jack:

      The IRS has recognized Sufism Reoriented as a church for the purposes of the Internal Revenue Code.

      This provides a basis for the RLUIPA lawsuit with which Sandy Skaggs threatened the Board of Supervisors at yesterday’s public hearing.

    • says

      But isn’t that designation of being a church or separate religion even a point of contention within the Meher tradition?

      If so, not only does it look like Sufism
      Reoriented played the County but the IRS as well like Scientology.

    • Wendy Lack says

      @BGR:

      Yes, there is disagreement among Meher Baba followers re the “is it or isn’t it” religion question.

      As for Sufism Reoriented “playing” both the IRS and local pols to get its project built precisely as designed, the facts speak for themselves.

    • Ron says

      @WendyLack – “Yes, there is disagreement among Meher Baba followers re the “is it or isn’t it” religion question.”

      Really, I am a Meher Baba follower and we do not care, as a rule, if the Sufis have organized as a religion. You Ms. Lack, who I have never seen at a Meher Baba meeting, would likely not know this, and yet you pontificate, relying on second or third hand noise. Shame on you. Your attempts at divisiveness are clearly juvenile.

  2. Mike Flake says

    Wow! If this facility is planned to accomodate 3,000 people based on the restrooms or 1,700 people based on the assembly hall, then they do not have enough space for parking.

    Assume 3,000 people all car pool to put 4 people in a car, then 750 parking spaces are needed. A standard space is 20′ x 9′, so 3 acres of parking spaces is needed. This doesn’t include the driveways and aisles needed to get the space, nor other requirements for disability parking. If the facility is planned for 1,700 people, then the amount of parking space goes down to 1.75 acres, but still not counting driveways and aisles.

    Where’s the parking garage to accomodate all these people being planned. I guess neigbors can rent driveways and yard space on days they hold events like they do in Berkeley for Cal football games. Maybe this will be sufficient mitigation – uh, I think not.

    • Wendy Lack says

      Appellants’ presentation time will be limited to 7 minutes, per the Board’s decision at its 2/14 meeting.

  3. Patricia says

    I have lived in the Saranap neighborhood for 33 years. I figured out in the first month that the curve on Boulevard Way is dangerous. So, from my point of view, the absolute worst place in our neighborhood that Sufism Reoriented could propose its new Sanctuary is the site they have chosen. This site is at the apex of the dangerous curve.

    It is such a shame that Sufism is unwilling to compromise in any way with the neighborhood. Is this what their religion teaches? Is this what their members teach at the Meher School? One of Gerald Jampolsky’s books talks about listening with the heart and then speaking with the heart. My neighbors and I ask that Sufism members listen with their hearts to what we are saying.

  4. Wendy Lack says

    Yes, this project is in the Saranap residential area of unincorporated Walnut Creek, on the Lafayette border down the street from Rossmoor.

    As approved by the Planning Commission, this project requires 125 parking stalls for the 66,074-square-foot building; however, the plans provide for only 71 on-site 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. However, this arrangement has since been shown to be invalid, thus Sufism Reoriented must find some other way to satisfy the conditions of approval established by the county.

    It should also be noted that the Consolidated Fire District has affirmed they use the following per-person space allowances, as set forth in the uniform building code:

    An assembly seated at tables = minimum of 15 sf per person

    A seated assembly (w/o tables) = minimum of 7sf per person

    A standing assembly = minimum of 5 sf per person

    The county used a different method to calculate the parking requirements for this project than is customary practice. Instead of using the entire square footage of the assembly hall space, county planners used only a portion of it. It is my understanding that Contra Costa County has never before used this calculation method.

    I expect we’ll learn more about the parking issue at the appeal hearing.

  5. Kris says

    This is in the residential area of Saranap in Walnut Creek: how many parking spaces for all the attendees to events that warrant:
    - 9,100 square-foot ballroom-size plaza for theatrical performances and large group dining;
    -11,940 square-foot assembly hall, with capacity to hold up to 1,700 people seated and nearly 2,400 standing;
    - A kitchen 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.);
    - 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.