Walnut Creek neighbors left in dark over County approvals for Sufism project

Sufi_Dome_Birds-Eyes_view-600-x-380-JPEG

Sufism’s controversial Walnut Creek, California building project was approved by County Supervisors a year ago amid strong protest from area residents.  The enormous building, which includes more than 66,000 square feet of meeting, retail and classroom space – roughly the size of Hearst Castle – continues to raise safety and parking concerns for area residents.

During the past year the project site has been excavated and graded in preparation for construction.  County Supervisors approved the project with 91 conditions that must be satisfied before a building permit is issued.  Currently Sufism’s building plans are under review by County officials to verify project status regarding the conditions of approval.

Patricia Perry, a retired planning professional, is part of a team of neighbors closely monitoring the Sufism project to ensure code compliance.  “We’ve been working on this project for more than two years, have attended every public hearing.  We know this project inside out,” Perry says.  “Unfortunately, County staff assigned to this project are unfamiliar with many issues, since they weren’t involved in public hearings before the planning commission and County Supervisors.  That’s why we feel public oversight is essential to the process.”

Neighbors are disappointed by the County’s refusal to release records verifying that conditions have been met.  “We know that once a building permit is issued, residents lose all leverage to ensure that promises made to us are kept,” Perry says.  “The County says the public must wait until after the building permit is issued before the plans held by the Public Works Department can be viewed.  But everyone knows that, by then, it’s too late to remedy anything overlooked.”

Concerned neighbors say that no other project has been handled this way. Public access to building plans is routinely available.  As Perry puts it, “The County’s secrecy and unique treatment of this applicant breed suspicion and distrust.”

In recent months Perry and her neighborhood team have met with County Supervisor Candace Andersen, County staff and representatives from the Sufism project team.  “None of our concerns are new.  We raised these issues during the environmental impact process,” Perry says.  “The County is complicit in helping the applicant steamroll over us, disregarding valid and significant concerns.”

These are some of the issues:

  • Dangerous Entry on Blind Curve; Secret Building Plans

The entry/exit to the project is on a blind curve well-known to locals, many of whom avoid it.  Neighbors say their safety fears have been minimized by County officials.

Last year the County authorized installation of temporary construction trailers at this dangerous location, aggravating the hazardous condition and increasing resident safety worries.  At an October 10, 2012 neighborhood meeting with Sufism representatives and County staff, County engineer Warren Lai told residents that current safety conditions are “adequate” because they are temporary and will last only for the 2-3 year construction period.  Accordingly, requests for relocation of the construction trailers were denied.

While County officials confirm building plans submitted by Sufism fail to meet code requirements for visibility – technically known as “sight distance” – they say compliance with the 250-foot sight distance requirement will be required once permanent construction is complete.  However neighbors insist on verifying how compliance will be achieved before the County issues a building permit.  The County has thus far refused.

“The County says it is concerned about public safety, but it seems they’re only paying lip service to legitimate and serious safety concerns,” Perry says.  “Neighbors are entitled to receive proof that sight distance requirements are met before the building permit is issued.  The County expects us to just trust them, but with this project it has betrayed our trust time and again.”

Perry also states that, according to the building plans originally submitted by Sufism, a car exiting the facility must pull out to the middle of the lane to even begin to see around the curve.  “This is not a safe situation under any set of regulations and is certainly not considered safe under Caltrans guidelines,” she says.  “Neighbors deserve the opportunity to verify how compliance will be achieved before this project is given the green light.  Why the stonewalling?  What is there to hide?”

After informal requests to review the plans, Perry made a public records request directly to County Supervisors at the Board’s December 11, 2012 public meeting.  Nearly a month later, Perry still awaits a response despite the County’s obligation to respond within ten business days under state law.

  • False Documents Used to Mislead County Officials

Lack of adequate parking for the project is a longstanding concern for area residents, particularly given the area’s narrow, winding streets and semi-rural conditions that lack sidewalks and streetlights.  County officials required only 71 on-site parking spaces for a building that would ordinarily require over four times that amount.  Certain County regulations – which some consider a loophole – drastically reduce on-site parking required because Sufism submitted a “Traffic Demand Management” (TDM) Program for carpooling and off-site parking.  Notably, the TDM Program applies to all future owners of the property.

Last fall County officials approved Sufism’s TDM Program designating Lafayette School District property as its off-site parking area.  However both the County and Sufism knew that such use is unauthorized because early last year the school district expressly prohibited it.  Nevertheless, in November the County approved the project’s TDM Program in record time, apparently with no questions asked.

Lafayette School District officials indicate they knew nothing about the County’s approval regarding use of its property, which was not authorized by the District, until concerned residents raised the issue at its December 12, 2012 school board meeting.  Residents have requested that school district and County officials communicate with one another, to verify the validity of Sufism’s off-site parking plan, but have received no assurances this will happen.

One member of Perry’s neighborhood oversight team (who declined to be named for this article) maintains it is improper for the Lafayette School District to allow use of public property for private purposes.  He believes Sufism’s insistence on using public property to provide overflow parking for its facility would create liability for taxpayers.  “Surely school board members know the District is the ‘deep pocket’ in this risk management scenario,” he says.  “There’s no way around that fact.”

Further, he is concerned that The Meher School, which is affiliated with Sufism, leases the property from the District and has repeatedly violated the terms of its lease agreement.  “The Meher School lease with the District prohibits subletting or entering into third party agreements,” he says.  “Nevertheless, Meher School has twice executed a parking agreement with Sufism, for the purpose of obtaining a building permit.  The school board is duty-bound to act immediately to prohibit use of public property for private purposes.”

Area residents also question why Sufism does not use one or more of the vacant properties it owns in the area to satisfy its parking needs.

  • Insufficient Parking for Multi-Use Facility

For 50 years Sufism operated as a spiritually-oriented school for music, dance and other performing arts.  It was only after the County’s rejection of Sufism’s initial building plans, and passage of a federal anti-discrimination law for church construction projects, that Sufism sought IRS qualification as a “church” in 2002.

Some observers – including Sufi critics of the Sufism Reoriented sect – regard this change in tax status as a calculated legal strategy to gain political leverage and ease approval of its oversized, under-parked multi-use building.  At a minimum these circumstances raise questions about how the building will be used, since Sufism practices don’t fit the mold of a conventional church.

Joyce Coleman is an area resident who questions whether the project has adequate parking to support its varied activities.  The initial traffic study recommended a total of 241 on-site parking spaces, including 125 spaces for the 5,000 sq. ft. assembly area and 116 spaces to support the 23,395 sq. ft. of classrooms, rehearsal areas, offices, dance studio, audio/video production studio, library, retail bookstore and plaza.  Coleman finds it “totally unacceptable that the on-site parking requirement was reduced to 71 spaces using a TDM Program that only addresses assembly event parking.  This completely ignores the 23,395 sq. ft. of the building to be used for rehearsals, classes, studio production work and retail sales, for which there is no historical parking information available.”

Coleman and her neighbors expect parking problems inevitably will arise once the project is completed.  “Eventually the County may need to develop a residential parking permit system,” Coleman says.  “How else can residents be assured street parking is available in front of their own homes?”

  • Outdated County Codes:  Who’s On First?

In the 1990’s Contra Costa County adopted a strict water conservation ordinance.  The Sufism project includes extensive landscaping that fails to meet the standards required by the County’s ordinance.

In response to an inquiry from Perry, County officials advised that the County’s adopted water conservation ordinance is no longer in effect because, in 2010, County staff decided to begin following less restrictive statewide standards.  Remarkably, this decision was simply implemented by staff without ever consulting County Supervisors.  The 2010 state law offered an option to retain the County’s more stringent standards or adopt the statewide standards.  While the County water conservation code remains on the books, County staff claim it no longer needs to be followed.

Perry believes this story illustrates the inefficiency of large bureaucracies.  “It’s no secret that some County codes are outdated.  However, it’s truly troubling to learn that the County’s practices are being changed by staff, without proper authority,” Perry says.  She has requested that County counsel rule on the matter, but has no indication an opinion is forthcoming.

  • “The Big Pass”

It’s no wonder that public dealings with Contra Costa County are often characterized by confusion and distrust.  As one resident who lives near the Sufi project puts it, “The County has let us down by giving this project ‘The Big Pass.’  It violates everything from the tree preservation ordinance to standard parking requirements. Here’s a $20 million project applicant that is not required to place utilities underground, while the County requires residential property owners to do so for home remodels.  It’s demoralizing and risks turning us all into scofflaws.  What’s the point of playing by the rules and applying for permits when County laws are selectively enforced?”

While Perry and her project watchdog team await a response to her County records request, tension mounts.  “To our knowledge the County has not yet issued Sufism Reoriented a building permit,” Perry says.  “While we understand that time is money for a builder, we also believe residents are justified in demanding answers to legitimate issues.  We don’t want to delay the project, we just want answers,” Perry says.

 

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Comments

  1. carole says

    Odd that the county allowed this project to break ground before all of the conditions of approval had been met.…. In addition, what possible justification could there be for Public Works to deny access to Perry’s reasonable request to view the plans being submitted. Supervisor Anderson intervened opening the door for public rights to be respected. Full transparency is necessary for local over site be exercised. Her closing statement indicates that she is resolute that the conditions of approval be fully satisfied. Parking is a critical condition that must be resolved BEFORE releasing authorization of a building permit. Anything less is careless and incompetent.

  2. Wendy Lack says

    Today I received a copy of correspondence dated January 23, 2013 from Saranap resident Patricia Perry to county planning department staff, relative to the Sufism Reoriented project’s offsite parking needs. Perry’s letter is reprinted below:
    __________________________________________________________________________________________________

    January 23, 2013

    Mr. Sean Tully
    Department of Conservation and Development
    County of Contra Costa
    30 Muir Road
    Martinez CA 94553

    Subject: Sufism Reoriented Parking License and Building Permit

    On Tuesday, January 22, 2013, Ms. Kutsuris received an email from Superintendent Brill confirming that the Lafayette School District continues to stand behind its statements of February 15, 2012.

    On Tuesday, January 22, 2013, Ms. Kutsuris also received a letter by email from Ms. Joyce Coleman explaining why the parking license submitted by Sufism Reoriented does not satisfy Condition of Approval 8 or the intent of the February 29th motion of Board member John Gioia.

    Specifically, the Lafayette School District reiterated its position yesterday that it did not authorize the Meher Schools to enter into a third-party agreement with Sufism Reoriented for the use of the parking lot.

    Sufism Reoriented has chosen to represent to the County that the Lafayette School District only restricted the Meher Schools from executing an “agreement.”

    Under any normal legal interpretation, the parking license would be considered an agreement, and it would be clear that the parking license was not authorized by the School District. Otherwise, a person such as Superintendent Brill would have to include in his email of September 16, 2011, and his letter of February 15, 2012, about 50 different synonyms for the word “agreement” to be certain that the District’s meaning was not misinterpreted.

    Based on these two submissions, plus the fact that the Meher Schools was prohibited by the Lafayette School District, which was reconfirmed yesterday, from entering into an agreement about parking with Sufism Reoriented, I must insist that the County not issue the building permit for the Sufism Reoriented Sanctuary in reliance on the parking license between the Meher Schools and Sufism Reoriented.

    If the building permit has been issued before you receive this letter, please be informed that I expect the County, including the County Counsel, to evaluate the referenced information. The County should immediately require that Sufism Reoriented find a new overflow parking site and submit such for approval within 120 days.

    Sincerely,

    Patricia R. Perry

    cc: Joyce Coleman
    Superintendent Fred Brill, Lafayette School District
    Mark Redmond, Saranap Homeowners’ Association
    Catherine Kutsuris, Conservation and Planning Department
    Sharon Anderson, County Counsel

    Pertinent Information:

    – The Board of Supervisors required that 54 offsite parking spaces be supplied by Sufism Reoriented.

    – By its own admission, Sufism Reoriented has never documented using more than 29 parking spaces at the Meyer Schools.

    – The Lafayette School District has affirmed that the quantity of parking spaces used by Sufism Reoriented at the Meher School must remain relatively constant and cannot be counted upon to meet any increased requirement.

    – Sufism Reoriented will not have available 54 spaces at the Meher Schools if it complies with the number of parking spaces that it used at the Meher Schools in the past, or 29.

    – Sufism Reoriented does not have any preferential parking rights at the Meher Schools, nor has it ever had.

    – The Meher Schools does not have the authority to grant preferential parking rights.

    – The Meher Schools, itself, retains the right to withdraw weekend, evening, and holiday parking privileges from Sufism Reoriented with notice.

    – The other major users of the Meher Schools parking lots continue to use and expect to continue to use the parking lots, thereby making availability of the lots never a certainty.

    – The Meher Schools did not seek or receive approval of its parking license from the Lafayette School District.

    – The Transportation Demand Management Program approved by the County for Sufism Reoriented is defective in that it has no carpool or similar TDM provisions for the non assembly uses of the Sufism Reoriented sanctuary. While the amount of parking may have been limited based on the size of the sanctuary, parking must still be provided at times needed for all uses. Since non-assembly uses comprise a need of approximately 116 parking spaces, according to the Appendix O, and since many of those uses could require parking during the day when the parking at the Meher Schools lots is not available, locating the overflow parking at the Meher Schools does not meet all the hours of the sanctuary’s parking needs. The license is limited to evening, weekend, and holiday hours. No evidence has been presented to the contrary that non assembly uses occur exclusively outside of school hours.

  3. Wendy Lack says

    I have received a copy of correspondence from Saranap resident Joyce Coleman to Catherine Kutsuris, Director of the Contra Costa County Conservation and Planning Department. Coleman’s letter pertains to neighborhood offsite parking concerns associated with the Sufism Reoriented building project. Her letter is reprinted below:
    ____________________________________________________________________________________________________

    January 21, 2013

    Ms. Catherine O. Kutsuris, Director
    Department of Conservation and Development
    Contra Costa County
    30 Muir Road
    Martinez, CA 94553

    Subject: Final Building Permit and Off-site Parking Agreement, Land Use Permit Condition of Approval No. 8 for County Files LP08-2034 and MS09-0008 as Modified and Approved by the Board of Supervisors on February 29, 2012, Sufism Reoriented (Applicant and Owner)

    Dear Director Kutsuris:

    The final building permit for this project must not be issued/approved for the subject Sufism Reoriented Sanctuary because the enforceable written Off-site Parking Agreement for 54 vehicles, required by the Approved Land Use Permit (dated February 29, 2012) and its Condition of Approval No. 8 (on page 9 of the approval document), has not yet been executed.

    Condition of Approval No. 8 states:

    The Project Sponsor shall maintain an enforceable written parking agreement with an off-site parking provider for use of the parking lots for overflow parking for evening, weekend and special events held at the subject site. If the overflow parking site becomes unavailable, the project sponsor shall notify the Department of Conservation and Development within 30 days, and provide another off-site location within two miles of the site, for the parking of no fewer than 54 vehicles within 120 days.

    Contra Costa County has in its possession a document entitled, “License for Parking” that it appears to be incorrectly considering satisfaction of Condition of Approval No. 8 quoted above. However, as you will soon recognize, the submitted “License for Parking” does not, in fact, satisfy Condition of Approval No. 8. Based on attendance at the Board of Supervisor’s Special Meeting on February 29, 2012, and from reading the Land Use Permit Conditions of Approval, the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors did require, as a condition of the approval of the Land Use Permit for the Sufism Reoriented new sanctuary, that Sufism Reoriented obtain an enforceable written agreement providing a minimum of fifty-four (54) off-site parking spaces, within two miles of the Sufism Reoriented Sanctuary, for evening, weekend, and special event use.

    Sufism Reoriented has submitted a “License for Parking” to the County that clearly does not meet the requirement for an enforceable written agreement for a minimum of 54 off-site parking spaces required by Land Use Permit Condition of Approval No. 8. There are major shortcomings inherent in this “License for Parking” that must be acknowledged by Contra Costa County:

    1. The Sufism Reoriented submitted “License for Parking” states:

    This license for Parking (“License”) between The Meher Schools, a California nonprofit public benefit corporation (“TMS”) and Sufism Reoriented, a California nonprofit religious corporation (“SR”) is to document and confirm a long-standing oral license allowing SR to use the parking lots at 999 Leland Drive, Lafayette, California.

    While there may have been a long-standing oral license allowing Sufism Reoriented to use a portion of the parking lots at 999 Leland Drive, there has never been a long-standing oral license allowing Sufism Reoriented to exclusively use the parking lots at 999 Leland Drive during evenings and weekends and holidays. The Lafayette School District and The Meher School have also given a long-standing oral license allowing the Sun Valley Swimming Pool Association (located at 1000 Leland Drive, Lafayette, CA) and the Lafayette Moraga Youth Association (LMYA) participants to use the parking lots at 999 Leland Drive. While Sufism Reoriented states on their official website that there are a total of 64 parking spaces within the Meher School parking lots, this count includes several substandard width parking spaces as well as some unmarked parking spaces on the narrow driveway of the uppermost lot which do not legally meet the definition of a parking space. Consequently, if Sufism Reoriented were to use 54 parking spaces, little to almost no parking would be available for the other historical users of The Meher School parking lots during evenings and weekends and holidays.

    2. The Sufism Reoriented submitted “License for Parking” states:

    Whereas, TMS [The Meher School] leases a school at 999 Leland Drive, Lafayette, California, from the Lafayette School District (“School Site”), which School Site contains parking lots, which are generally not used on evenings or weekends by TMS; and

    While The Meher School parking lots are generally not used on evenings and weekends by The Meher School, they are used frequently and heavily, during certain months, on evenings and weekends by the neighboring Sun Valley Swimming Pool Association and LMYA to the benefit of the community as these organizations open their membership to the children and families of the local community. Swim meets and soccer matches bring members of the extended youth sports community to park at The Meher School parking lots.

    3. The Sufism Reoriented submitted “License for Parking” states:

    Whereas, for many years SR [Sufism Reoriented] has used the parking lots of TMS [The Meher School] for overflow parking for evening and weekend events and desires to continue this use in the future;

    Yes, while Sufism Reoriented has “used” the parking lots of The Meher School for overflow parking for evening and weekend events in the past, it is highly unlikely that Sufism Reoriented used 54 of the parking spaces available within The Meher School parking lots in the past based on statements of Sufism Reoriented. According to the Sufism Reoriented website (www.sufismreoriented.org/new_sanctuary/faqs/faq_parking.htm), under “Is the Parking Adequate?”, Sufism Reoriented states:

    The highest count since we began monitoring parking at this three-day event in 2008 was ninety-three that year, sixty-four at the church and twenty-nine at the school.

    Therefore, according to their own website, Sufism Reoriented has likely never used more than 29 of the available parking spaces at The Meher School thereby leaving space for other parking lot users in the past. In other words, the fifty-four (54) parking spaces required to be made available during weekends and evenings by the Land Use Permit Condition of Approval No. 8 absolutely does not represent a continuation of past practice for Sufism Reoriented in regard to their historical use of the parking lots of The Meher School.

    Consequently, the wording of the “License for Parking” that Sufism Reoriented submitted to satisfy Condition of Approval No. 8, is inadequate in that it implies that future use (54 spaces required by the County) will be equivalent to a continuation of past practice and use (not more than 29 spaces historically and close to half of potential future use) and it does not state anywhere within the “License for Parking” that The Meher School gives permission for Sufism Reoriented to use fifty-four (54) spaces or almost all of the available parking during evenings, weekends, and special events. Instead, The Meher School only gives permission to continue past practice within the Sufism Reoriented submitted “License for Parking.” The County Condition of Approval requiring off-site parking for 54 vehicles is based upon the massive event space available within the new Sufism Reoriented Sanctuary that is not available in their current Sanctuary.

    4. The Sufism Reoriented submitted “License for Parking” states:

    Whereas, the School District has consented to the continuation of this use by letter dated June 14, 2011, from Fred Brill, its Superintendent.

    In fact, the letter dated June 14, 2011, from Fred Brill does give consent to a continuation of past use, but states that the School District approval is conditional upon the quantity and frequency of facility use by LMYA, the Sun Valley Swimming Pool Association, and neighborhood use remaining relatively constant in keeping with past use:

    I am providing district authorization for you to continue with your long-standing practice of allowing parking for Lafayette Moraga Youth Association, Sun Valley Pool, Sufism Reoriented, and neighbors who utilize your playground and upper field during evenings, weekends and holidays. As noted in our conversations … our approval of the aforementioned practice of allowing parking for Lafayette Moraga Youth Association, Sun Valley Pool, Sufism Reoriented, and neighbors who utilize your playground and upper field during evenings, weekends and holidays, assumes the quantity and frequency of facility use remains relatively constant in keeping with the use experienced at the School Site over the past 30 years.

    Even more importantly, in a February 15, 2012, letter to Supervisor Uilkema, Lafayette School District Superintendent Fred Brill stated:

    Accordingly, The Meher School parking lots cannot be counted on to meet any increase in parking needs connected to the Sufism Reoriented sanctuary or any other informal user group. In an e-mail to Pascal Kaplan, dated September 16, 2011, I made clear that we are not authorizing The Meher School to enter into a third-party agreement with Sufism Reoriented, or any other group, regarding the use of the fields, facilities, or parking lot. On February 15, Pascal provided written verification that The Meher School has terminated the written agreement regarding parking with Sufism Reoriented.

    It is more than clear that Sufism Reoriented and The Meher School do not have Lafayette School District approval to execute a written enforceable agreement providing space for Sufism Reoriented to be able to park a minimum of fifty-four (54) vehicles during all evenings, weekends, and holidays as required by Contra Costa County Land Use Permit Condition of Approval No. 8 regarding off-site parking. The Meher School parking lots have not been in the past and are not currently or in the future intended for the exclusive use of The Meher School and Sufism Reoriented.


    5. The Sufism Reoriented submitted “License for Parking” states:

    Now, therefore, in consideration of the thousands of hours of volunteer service provided TMS by SR … the parties agree as follows:

    1. When needed for overflow parking, SR may use parking spaces located on the School Site between the hours of 6:30 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and on all holidays observed by TMS.

    It is important to note that the Sufism Reoriented submitted “License for Parking” absolutely does not state anywhere within it that Sufism Reoriented may park fifty-four (54) vehicles (using almost all of the marked parking spaces at The Meher School) at the School Site between the hours of 6:30 p.m. and 11 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and on all holidays observed by The Meher School. Actually, because the School District letter specifies that LMYA, the Sun Valley Swimming Pool Association, and neighbors also have the right to use the parking spaces in accordance with past use, it absolutely does not give Sufism Reoriented approval to use almost all of the parking spaces located at The Meher Schools during evenings, weekends, and during special events.

    The Sufism Reoriented submitted “License for Parking” does not give Sufism Reoriented a license or School District approval to park a minimum of fifty-four (54) vehicles at The Meher School and it is entirely inappropriate for Contra Costa County to accept this document as a written enforceable agreement providing parking for a minimum of 54 vehicles during evenings and weekends and holidays that is within two miles of the sanctuary for the new Sufism Reoriented Sanctuary.

    6. The Sufism Reoriented submitted “License for Parking” states:

    3. Notwithstanding paragraph 1 above, upon reasonable notice that TMS needs some or all of the parking spaces at any time specified in paragraph 1, SR agrees that it shall reduce its use of the School Site accordingly. . . .

    This clause within the “License for Parking” only allows for Sufism Reoriented, upon receiving reasonable notice (no timeframe is specified and reasonable notice is left to interpretation and debate) to agree to reduce its use of The Meher School parking lots when The Meher School needs some or all of the parking spaces. There is no provision within the license for Sufism Reoriented to reduce its use of the available parking for Sun Valley Pool swim meets and LMYA team events. In fact, because Sufism Reoriented must secure the availability of off-site parking space for fifty-four (54) vehicles, it should likely look to procure its parking spaces at a site other than The Meher School property. Did Sufism Reoriented consider using one of the lots it owns located near their new sanctuary for off-site parking so that members and guests could park and walk to the new sanctuary?

    In conclusion, could the Lafayette School District be any clearer that The Meher Schools parking lots are not to serve a Sufism Reoriented parking need beyond the current and historical use experienced with Sufism Reoriented’s significantly smaller current facility and that The Meher School parking lots also serve the larger community? For Contra Costa County to issue or approve the issuance of a final building permit to Sufism Reoriented dependent on a “License for Parking” that only provides off-site parking for vehicle usage consistent with past usage (parking for around 29 vehicles) when the County has required Sufism Reoriented to make available off-site parking for a minimum of 54 vehicles would make a mockery of County government and destroy the public’s trust in their County to uniformly and fairly enforce their own rules and stated requirements.

    Please take the necessary action to prevent the inappropriate issuance or approval for issuance of a final building permit for this project and require Sufism Reoriented to satisfy the Land Use Permit Condition of Approval No. 8 by executing a enforceable written agreement to provide a minimum of 54 off-site parking spaces dedicated to their use on evenings, weekends, and holidays and located within 2 miles of the project site.

    Sincerely,

    Joyce A. S. Coleman

    cc: Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors
    Sharon L. Anderson, County Counsel

  4. Wendy Lack says

    I am in receipt of an e-mail exchange dated January 22, 2013 from Lafayette School District Superintendent Fred Brill to Saranap resident Patricia Perry, as follows. (Note: The February 15, 2012 letter referenced herein is available here: http://www.halfwaytoconcord.com/sufism-reoriented-sanctuary-plan-misrepresents-parking-to-county-planners/)
    ______________________________________________________________________________________________

    From: Patricia Perry
    Sent: Tuesday, January 22, 2013 10:36 AM
    To: Brill, Fred
    Cc: Kapoor, Art; Gerringer, Teresa; Gerson, David; Follmer, Jean; Wallace, Nancy; Mark Redmond;
    Subject: Doesn’t LSD stand behind its 2-15-12 Letter?

    Dr. Brill,

    Please, please confirm with the County as soon as possible that the District’s statements of February 15, 2012 still stand and apply to the parking license as well as to the prior parking agreement that the District required to be withdrawn. We may not agree on all points, but don’t we agree on those points?

    The building permit for Sufism Reoriented was still not approved as of noon Friday [January 18, 2013], but I am assured that will be approved in short order.

    Please do not let this permit be approved because the District failed to notify the County that its position has not changed!

    My neighbors and I first approached the County on December 12. It is now January 22. Please act.

    Patricia
    ______________________________________________________________________________________________

    From: “Fred Brill”
    To: “Patricia Perry”
    Cc: “Art Kapoor” ,”Teresa Gerringer”, “David Gerson”, “Jean Follmer”, “Nancy Wallace”, “Ray O’Brien”
    Sent: Tuesday, January 22, 2013 11:28:53 AM
    Subject: RE: Doesn’t LSD stand behind its 2-15-12 Letter?

    Patricia,

    I am happy to contact the county and inform them that the District’s statements of February 15, 2012 still stand and apply to the parking license as well. I will provide such communication today.

    Respectfully,

    Fred

    Fred Brill, Ed.D.
    Superintendent
    Lafayette School District
    3477 School Street
    Lafayette, CA 94549

  5. Wendy Lack says

    The Sufism Reoriented project is required to have 54 offsite parking places to supplement its 71 onsite parking places.

    Sufism Reoriented has represented to the County that all of its offsite parking needs for its new facility will be met by the parking lots at the Meher Schools, on property leased from the Lafayette School District.

    Specifically, Sufism represents that all 54 parking spaces at the Meher Schools will be available for its sole use during all evenings and weekends. However, Sufism’s special events historically have not required use of more than 29 parking spaces at the Meher Schools. In fact, Sufism’s new facility is six times larger than its current 11,000 square foot building and has capacity to hold far larger crowds.

    In a letter dated January 12, 2013, Meher Schools President Pascal Kaplan requested approval from the Lafayette School District for this new use, representing it as consistent with a “long-standing, District-approved parking agreement . . . .”

    Neighborhood residents and community groups that use the Meher Schools parking lot are left to wonder how the Lafayette School District will respond.

    Read Kaplan’s letter here.

    Mehers School Parking. Lafayette School District, Indemnification, Contra Costa Planning by

  6. Wendy Lack says

    Today I received a copy of an e-mail Ms. Perry sent to members of the Lafayette School Board, reprinted below. When a copy of the letter from Pascal Kaplan (referenced in Perry’s letter) is available, I’ll also post it here.

    The District is both tone deaf and irresponsible, if it permits its tenant to flagrantly violate its lease by subletting District property. This new use of District property creates liability for District residents.

    Sufism Reoriented should find a proper location for its off-site parking.
    __________________________________________
    —–Original Message—–
    From: Patricia Perry
    To: akapoor; tgerring; dgerson; jfollmer; nwallace ; Fred Brill
    Cc: Ray O’Brien; Contra Costa Times
    Sent: Thu, Jan 17, 2013 9:13 am
    Subject: about the parking license TRY TO READ TODAY

    I had requested the opportunity to receive Mr. [Pascal] Kaplan’s [of Sufism Reoriented] letter as soon as it was received so that I could respond to it. I wanted you to have both my letter and his at the same time. Since I have been denied that opportunity, and I was told yesterday that you have his letter, I am sending you this document which I wrote last night. This is the best that I could do on short notice in case you are making a decision today. I hope that you will consider these comments in making your decision.

    January 17, 2013

    Delivered Via Email on January 17, 2013

    Members of the Governing Board
    Superintendent Brill
    Lafayette School District
    3477 School Street
    Lafayette CA 94549

    Subject: LSD Responsibility to Declare Sufism Reoriented Parking License Invalid

    Members of the Governing Board and Superintendent Brill:

    The purpose of this letter is to give you additional information about why the Lafayette School District should not rule the parking license valid based on past practice.

    Also, I wish to again bring to your attention other factors which were not addressed in Superintendent Brill’s recent email.

    Is the Parking License Representative of Past Practice?

    The County is requiring Sufism Reoriented to supply and have available an additional 54 offsite parking places to supplement its 71 onsite parking places, for a total of 125 parking spaces. These 54 parking places must be made available. Any fewer than 54 parking spaces would not be allowable under Sufism Reoriented’s conditions of approval for their new sanctuary.

    Sufism Reoriented has told the County that all 54 spaces are located in the parking lots at the Meher Schools. By submitting the parking license to Contra Costa County, Sufism Reoriented sought to prove that it has available for its sole use during all evenings and weekends, 54 parking spaces at the Meher Schools.

    It is not in the purview of the Lafayette School District to consider that the parking license represents a usage of any less that 54 parking spaces.

    During the EIR process, and on its own website, Sufism Reoriented states that, since it started monitoring, has not needed more than 29 parking spaces at the Meher Schools to serve its special events.[1] Therefore, by Sufism Reoriented’s own records, it has not used 54 parking spaces at the Meher Schools. Consequently, Sufism Reoriented’s having the use of 54 parking spaces at the Meher School does not represent past practice and is not consistent with past practice. It exceeds past practice by almost double.

    In the past, during evenings and weekends, other users besides the Meher Schools, including Sufism Reoriented, used the school parking lots on a first come, first serve basis. The school’s parking was not reserved through any formal arrangement for Sufism Reoriented over any other user, nor could it have been because the Meher Schools did not have the permission of the School District to do so. The permission of the District was required under the provisions of the new lease as well as under the provisions of the old lease.

    The parking license granted by the Meher Schools was executed to prove to the County that Sufism Reoriented has a legal, enforceable right and priority to all the parking at the Meher School, outside of school hours, 365 days, 52 weeks a year in perpetuity. Again, the parking license is clearly a departure from past practice.

    Past practice has been that none of the parking during non-school hours at the Meher Schools was reserved for any non-Meher School user, nor could it have been under the terms of the lease with the District. Nor, did any user have priority under past practice. Nor, did Sufism Reoriented use more than 29 parking spaces, according to its own statements, far less than the 54 it must have to satisfy County requirements.

    Future Use of the New Sanctuary[2]

    How many users will eventually be accommodated at the new sanctuary should not be assumed to be limited to past use! Any assertion by Sufism Reoriented that past use will be exactly the same as future use seems absurd given the vastly greater capacity of the new facility.

    The existing facility is only 11,000 square feet. The main room only comprises a portion of that square footage. Therefore, only so many people could be accommodated at any one time.

    However, the new facility is 66,000 square feet. It has two separate areas, one on each floor, rated for occupancies of several hundred people by the Contra Costa Fire District. This is vastly beyond what the old facility can accommodate.

    The ground floor level of the new sanctuary, where special events will be held, was built to accommodate many people at once. About 300[3] people can be seated for dinners in the 4,500 square-foot ground floor plaza, an interior area. Without tables, 450[4] people could be seated.

    The 4,500 square-foot plaza is flanked by an adjoining additional 3,000 square feet of gallery space which is essentially part of the same room, being separately only by a few widely spaced columns.

    While it may not be the intent of Sufism Reoriented to increase its membership or have large events, the fact of the matter is that it has purposely built a very large facility capable of handling a large number of members and guests. For the School District to accept an assertion that the number of guests or members will never ever increase seems the wrong way to evaluate a parking license. The parking license is for 54 spaces. The School District should not assume that only 29 of the 54 spaces will be used and accept this as reasonable due to past practice. It begs common logic to assume such and it is not in accord with what the County is requiring of Sufism Reoriented.

    After all, why did Sufism Reoriented build a facility that could accommodate so many more people than its existing facility? Is Sufism Reoriented always and forever only going to have 125 people attend an event in a room that can hold 300 for dinner or 450 seated according to fire department standards? The kitchen and pantry built adjacent to this area, for the stated purpose of being able to serve dinners at large events, is over 1,800 square feet, or the size of a house. Expecting no variation at all, not even one person more than past use, does not seem to be an appropriate or wise planning practice. Does the School District plan for itself in this manner?

    The upstairs open area is even larger than the ground floor area. It has over 11,000 square feet. The only dividers are 16 columns which are eight feet apart. Think how many people could be accommodated in this area at an event. While it is not the intent of Sufism to hold large events in this area at this time, who can tell what the future will bring.

    To summarize, the Sufism Reoriented Sanctuary will have a 7,500 foot area on one floor and an 11,000 area one another floor in which events could be held. Approving a parking license based on “past practice of using the Meher Schools parking lots” is totally out of dimension with what is being built and what is being asked of the School District in perpetuity. It is certainly not in the public interest to grant such an exclusive accommodation to one church in a community of many churches and many non profit organizations.

    To reiterate, the School District has no firm legal standing and no defensible or plausible basis for granting the parking license to be based solely on someone’s reported past practice given the plethora of information which I have provided you which argues to the contrary. Furthermore, Sufism Reoriented, by its own statements, admits that the parking license is for a number of parking spaces almost twice what it used in the past.

    Is the Parking License Legal Under the State Education Code?

    The lease between the District and the Meher Schools requires that the facilities be used in keeping with federal and state law and, in particular, the State Education Code.

    “No use by any organization or individuals of the School Site shall be permitted where such use is inconsistent with the provisions of the State Education Code of the State of California.”

    The California Education Code describes what it considers appropriate community uses of publicly owned school facilities. Religious institutions may only use publicly owned school facilities to temporarily hold religious services if those institutions do not have a facility of their own. Section 38131 states in Section (b):

    “The governing board of any school district may grant the use of school facilities or grounds as a civic center upon the terms and conditions the board deems proper, subject to the limitations, requirements, and restrictions set forth in this article, for any of the following purposes:

    (3) The conduct of religious services for temporary periods, on a one-time or renewable basis, by any church or religious organization that has no suitable meeting place for the conduct of the services, provided the governing board charges the church or religious organization using the school facilities or grounds a fee as specified in subdivision (d) of Section 38134.”

    In this case, Sufism Reoriented will have its own newly completed 66,000 square-foot facility, costing $18 million dollars or more. It will not be using the public school facility for the conduct of services temporarily, but as an overflow parking lot in perpetuity. This is despite the fact that Sufism Reoriented owns several properties within one block of the new sanctuary, upon which the overflow parking could be located.

    Using a public school facility for a permanent parking lot for a private construction project is not an appropriate use of public property and is not a matter of past practice.

    And, using public property to guarantee compliance with the conditions of a building permit is not the type of good spirited “civic” use envisioned by the State Education Code for a public school facility.

    Is the Parking License Legal Under the Lease with the District?

    Under the section on Improvements and Access (d), the lease states that:

    “The lessee shall not assign or sublet the School Site for any new reason or purpose without the prior written consent of the Lessor….Any unauthorized assignment, sublease, encumbrance, or hypothecation of the school site shall be void and shall constitute a default.”

    After the School District made it clear in its February 15, 2012 letter that a parking agreement between the Meher Schools and Sufism Reoriented was not acceptable, the Meher Schools did not confer with the District. Instead, it issued the parking license without garnering the District’s permission, a violation of the terms of the lease.

    The lease further states under the section on Conduct and Activity that:

    “No third party organization shall be permitted to use the school site for any purpose other than related educational services and programs in conformance with federal and state law without express written permission from the Lessor.”

    Is the use of the Meher School parking lots as overflow parking for a religious sanctuary located elsewhere to be considered a “related educational service or program?”

    Parking is NOT a related educational service or program.

    And, Sufism Reoriented did not have, or even seek, express written permission from the District to use the parking lots to the degree designated in the license — in perpetuity, 52 weeks a year, 365 days a year, to the exclusion of all other users.

    Liability

    Overall, the Meher School parking lots have not been well maintained. There are tripping and other hazards. Further, the lease with the Meher Schools does not provide any maintenance schedule or standards. This is a potential liability issue because the District has not acted to adequately protect itself or preserve public property. In essence, the Lessee has paid a discounted amount to lease a public property and has not been required to perform sufficient maintenance.

    A. ADA Status of Parking Lot at the Meher Schools

    The public parking lot at the Meher Schools is not striped for ADA parking. No matter what the lease says, I believe that the School District would be considered liable because it has rented a facility not in compliance with ADA laws which are now 20 years old.

    B. Shuttle Bus Parking, Waiting Areas, and Seating While Waiting

    The Meher Schools parking lot does not have any provision for shuttle bus parking, safe shuttle bus waiting areas, or safe seating for the disabled or others while waiting for the shuttle bus. Yet, the Meher Schools proposes to grant a parking license in perpetuity to Sufism Reoriented, receiving a pass on liability for itself but not the School District.

    Even if Sufism Reoriented grants a waiver of liability to the School District, does the School District’s legal counsel deem this valid legal protection? Can the District wave its legal responsibility as to the condition of the facilities if it approves the license?

    C. Staff Lots in Poor Condition

    Staff lots will need to be used to reach the full 54-offsite parking spaces being required by the County. This is more than the number of spaces in the main parking lot at the Meher Schools. Therefore, the condition of the staff parking lots is also at issue. As you may be aware, the condition of these lots is even worse than the main lot. In particular, the staff lots are poorly lit.

    Will people be walking down to the shuttle bus in the dark? You need to check this out to see how poorly lit the staff lots are and the poor condition of the edge of the pavement.

    Also, I believe that some of the dimensions in the staff parking lots and driveways are substandard. If accidents occur as people back up, etc., who is responsible?

    While Sufism Reoriented may not care about these matters, under the State Education Code, if school property is used by community groups, the school district may yet retain liability. The “parking license” relieves the Meher Schools of liability, but does not waive liability for the School District. Were Sufism Reoriented or the Meher Schools to release the School District of liability, is the School District certain that any waiver is legally binding or enforceable?

    Pattern of Lease Violations

    Sufism Reoriented operates a religious bookstore on the Meher School property. This bookstore is labeled as such on the door at the school. Sufism Reoriented stated the fact in writing to the County that it operates the bookstore at the Meher School in Appendix B, page B-6, of the Environmental Impact Report for the Sanctuary.

    “The Searchlight Bookstore – Our bookstore is currently housed in an office at the Meher Schools.”

    The Meher Schools did not request permission of the School District for Sufism Reoriented to operate the religious bookstore on school property. This is a further violation by the Meher Schools of the lease between the District and the Meher Schools.

    Not only is the bookstore not legal under the lease with the School District, operating the bookstore on public school property is probably not legal under the State Education Code.

    Furthermore, the Meher Schools sought to renew its lease in 2011, a full four years before the prior lease expired. This renewal was completed in violation of the terms of the 2004 lease which stated that the lease could be renegotiated six months before its ten-year expiration (in 2014), not four years early.

    By renewing the lease early, just before the approval process started for the Sufism Reoriented Sanctuary, the public’s opportunity and right to comment on the provisions of the lease were circumvented.

    Conclusion

    The actions of the Meher Schools to grant a parking license as a substitute for the parking agreement which the District declined to authorize borders on deceit.

    I request that the School District act in the public interest and declare that the parking license granted to Sufism Reoriented is invalid and require that it be revoked. The School District must immediately put the County on notice that the parking license is invalid.

    I am appalled that the District has allowed this situation to continue five weeks after I informed the District on December 10 of the existence of the parking license.

    And, how did the Lafayette School District use this five weeks?

    As best I can tell, the District merely sat on its hands and waited a month for the Meher Schools to submit information, while its sister organization, Sufism Reoriented, used this delaying tactic to get the building permit approved before the School District acted to nullify the parking license.

    And, for the Lafayette School District to wait so long to determine that this parking license is in violation of the lease, the Education Code, and the interests of the public is irresponsible and biased.

    It is highly probable that the building permit has been approved based on the parking license. This never should have occurred, and it happened because the District refused to act in a timely way, or at least ask the County to delay action on the permit until a determination about the parking license was made.

    Whom do you serve? The public or the Meher Schools? Do you believe in doing what is right or covering for your tenant who submitted a parking license for which it did not have authorization and who is already violating its lease with the District in several other ways.

    I pray and hope that you will choose the high road, do what is right for the voters and residents of this district, and revoke this parking license.

    Submitted,

    Patricia R. Perry
    cc: Contra Costa Times

    [1] http://www.sufismreoriented.org/new_sanctuary/faqs/faq_parking.htm
    “The highest count since we began monitoring parking at this three-day event in 2008 was ninety-three that year, sixty-four at the church and twenty-nine at the school.”

    [2] FEIR Appendix B
    [3] Assuming 15 square feet per person.
    [4] Assuming 10 square feet per person.

  7. Wendy Lack says

    It looks like the Lafayette School District is incapable of giving a straight answer. Instead, the District uses doublespeak to effectively approve Sufism’s use of public school property, in perpetuity, to satisfy its off-site parking requirements.

    Since the District’s attorney sees no problem with this arrangement, presumably s/he also has no problem with the District’s increased liability associated with large crowds using its improperly striped, poorly lit parking area.

    Here’s the e-mail exchange between Ms. Perry, representing residents’ concerns, and Lafayette School District Superintendent Fred Brill in which Brill explains why the District is unconcerned about Sufism’s “parking license” issued by the District’s property tenant (The Meher School), in violation of the tenant’s lease agreement with the District, which misleads county officials for the purpose of obtaining a building permit:
    ___________________________________________

    From: Patricia Perry
    Sent: Friday, January 11, 2013 9:40 AM
    To: Brill, Fred
    Cc: Lafayette School District Board Members
    Subject: Immediate LSD action needed

    Dr. Brill,

    Contra Costa County informed me on Thursday [January 10, 2013] that the building permit for the Sufism Reoriented Sanctuary will be approved on Monday or Tuesday, January 14 or 15. This permit is based on 54 overflow parking spaces being available in perpetuity at the Meher Schools.

    This assignment of parking rights to Sufism Reoriented by the Meher Schools is a violation of the lease terms of the Meher Schools lease with the Lafayette School District. Furthermore, public property is being used to guarantee the conditions of approval for private construction to proceed. This is a very inappropriate use of public property and a violation of the public interest. Beyond that, the arrangement raises liability issues for the District and, in my reading, does not appear to be in conformance with the State Education Code, a further requirement of the lease.

    The School District’s first responsibility is to the residents and voters of this District, not to the Meher Schools.

    With the information that the building permit for the Sufism Reoriented Sanctuary is about to be approved–based on a parking license which is not allowable under the terms of the Meher schools lease–it is the FIDUCIARY RESPONSIBILITY of the School District to immediately contact the County and inform the staff that the building permit should not be approved based on having overflow parking at the Meher Schools.

    This communication needs to happen on Friday, January 11, or early Monday, January 14. Just sending a letter by US mail and hoping that it gets there in time would not be sufficient.

    What possible reason can the School District have for delaying any further?

    You told me yourself that you thought that you had made it clear to the Meher Schools back in February that this parking arrangement was not acceptable.

    Three weeks is more than a reasonable amount of time for Mr. Kaplan to supply additional information. And, a month is more than enough time for the District to determine that the parking license granted by the Meher Schools is either valid or invalid under the lease with the District.

    If the District wishes to wait for Mr. Kaplan’s letter, it should ask the County to delay approving the building permit. I would appreciate a copy of any correspondence that you send to the County regarding this matter.

    Patricia Perry

    P.S. I have been told that if the School District fails to enforce breaches of a lease, other breaches of the lease become harder to enforce legally because a pattern of non-enforcement has been established.
    ___________________________________________

    From: “Fred Brill”
    To: “Patricia Perry”
    Cc: “Art Kapoor” , “Teresa Gerringer” , “David Gerson” , “Jean Follmer” , “Nancy Wallace”
    Sent: Monday, January 14, 2013 5:36:20 PM
    Subject: RE: Immediate LSD action needed

    Patricia,

    In reviewing the “license” with our attorney, we see no discernible intent to change existing practice regarding parking use at the Meher School. In fact, reference was made in the license to my June 14, 2011 letter outlining parameters of use.

    As I stated in the February 14, 2012 letter to then Supervisor Gayle Uilkema and the Walnut Creek Planning Commission: “The Meher School Parking lot cannot be counted on to meet any increase in parking needs connected to Sufism Reoriented sanctuary or any other informal user group.”

    Respectfully,

    Fred

    Fred Brill, Ed.D.
    Superintendent
    Lafayette School District
    3477 School Street
    Lafayette, CA 94549
    (925) 927-3502

  8. Wendy Lack says

    Patricia Perry has informed me that she was contacted by the county public works department on Thursday (January 10th) and told that she would be permitted to review the project. She did so today (Friday, January 11th) and was told the county expects to issue the building permit for this project early next week, as early as Monday.

    Unfortunately there was no drawing made available for Perry’s review that demonstrated how sight distance would be achieved at the dangerous entry/exit driveway on the blind curve.

    I consider the county’s response to Ms. Perry’s records request non-responsive, given its specificity regarding the sight distance issue.

    And I wonder whether the county will issue the building permit without making a determination about sight distance code compliance. Doing so would fail to satisfy the 91 conditions of approval established year — and has the potential to create liability for county taxpayers related to accidents that occur at this dangerous location, given the county’s prior knowledge of the issue.

    County supervisors’ promises made to residents should be kept.

    Taxpayers shouldn’t be saddled with liability costs associated with avoidable risks.

    • Anna says

      What absurdities are you referring to? I have been following the progress of this project very closely and with great interest from its inception and believe wholeheartedly in the validly of Wendy Lacks article. The Sufi members believe whatever they are told from their hierarchy beause it is not the concern of the members to know the details only that they should be in favor of the plan for a beautiful sanctuary. The real absurdities and con job come from S.R. leaders applying for church status just to get the project pushed through when they always have in the past claimed not to be a church or religion. The Sufis say they are honest in all aspects of business and personal affairs but with all that is transpiring with their dealings with the County it looks very bad for them in the eyes of the greater Saranap community. But why do they care as long as they get what they want!