Feeling sympathy for elected officials is something I rarely experience. But even I cannot help but feel sorry for the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors who must decide the fate of the Sufism Reoriented building project in unincorporated Walnut Creek. The information overload and PR pressure must be intense.
The Board may decide the matter as early as Wednesday, February 29th. What should they do? Here are a few suggestions:
- Think Long Term
Because “the [use] permit runs with the land,” as county supervisor John Gioia affirmed at last week’s hearing, project impacts must be addressed up-front to protect the public interest and consider both current and future owners.
Sufism Reoriented’s grand 66,074 square-foot sanctuary is designed to last for generations. Locating a commercial-sized building on a small parcel in a residential neighborhood risks public complaints that last for generations, too.
- Notice What’s Missing
California law requires that reasonable project alternatives be identified and evaluated in an environmental impact report (EIR). In this case, the three project alternatives identified were to build: 1) 7 homes; 2) 15 homes; and 3) a 66,074 square-foot sanctuary.
It is reasonable to ask:
- Do you have information about whether this project could have been built elsewhere or a smaller size?
- If this building – which has capacity to accommodate assemblies of up to 1,700 people — were not a church, would you consider approving it with only 71 on-site parking spaces?
- What liability would county taxpayers assume if this proposal is approved?
- Are project mitigation measures based upon assumptions with high levels of certainty?
Until all of these questions can be answered, project approval is premature.
- Protect the Most Vulnerable Minority Group: The Individual
The Board must act to lessen project impacts in ways genuinely responsive to stated concerns. Disregarding or minimizing public complaints only intensifies conflict, as the county planning commission’s handling of this project amply demonstrates.
This unusual project proposes to locate a below-grade structure, similar in size to commercial buildings typically found in urban areas, by excavating a 25-foot-deep hole 15 feet from residential property lines. This project does not follow a standard template. It falls outside normal application of county ordinances and appears to be beyond the experience of county staff and, for that matter, the public.
Traditionally residential areas are those most strictly protected by government land use rules. For example, public agencies such as San Francisco have adopted noise enforcement programs to protect residents from noise greater than 55 decibels (dB), which is linked with large numbers of adverse health conditions. Such programs serve to preserve the peace and comfort of people’s homes.
The presence of residential childcare businesses in the area demands that the county safeguard residents’ health, safety and livelihoods from the impacts of an ill-placed mega-project.
County Supervisors have a duty to defend the interests of individual residents from the impacts of wealthy developers. If the Board does not do so, no one will. After all, this is why a Land Use Permit is required in the first place.
- Accept Murphy’s Law as Operational Reality
Under the best of circumstances, things go wrong with construction projects. Building contractors take shortcuts, subcontractors balk at project conditions and plans change mid-stream creating fresh urgency.
The conditions of a project’s approval — established up-front before construction begins — are the only reliable means by which the public is protected from short-term construction chaos and long-term development impacts. After construction gets underway the county loses its leverage and the public is left to fend for itself.
To properly serve the public interest, conditions of approval must address the uncertainty characteristic of large-scale projects.
- Just Say No to GIGO (“Garbage In, Garbage Out”)
Appellants cite numerous defects and omissions in the environmental impact report (EIR) as a basis to request its decertification. They urge to have the EIR corrected and recirculated for public review.
Making decisions based on inaccurate or incomplete information demonstrates the time-honored adage “garbage in, garbage out.” Because this EIR contains errors and is incomplete in substantive ways, decisions informed by it are suspect and potentially place taxpayers on the hook for increased county liability.
Here are a few of the flaws in the EIR mentioned at last week’s appeal hearing:
- The project has one driveway located on blind curve with inadequate (234 ft.) sight distance, which fails to meet the minimum standard (250 ft.), as well as the distance recommended by CalTrans traffic engineers (385 ft.). This serious safety issue must be addressed.
- The project would never have been approved without Sufism’s submission of a “parking lease agreement” later found to be fraudulent.
- County codes require setbacks to protect the health, safety and welfare of neighboring properties, though county staff has determined no setbacks are required for Sufism Reoriented.
- This project uses experimental parking lot material not addressed in county codes and which has raised concerns for fire district officials. Inexplicably the county has required no variance.
- At the appeal hearing staff stated that parking for the project was determined in accordance with the “Transportation Demand Management Plan” (TDMP) in lieu of the county parking ordinance. However, the TDMP and parking ordinance are not mutually exclusive, as indicated in the project EIR and prior statements by staff.
- County staff says this is the first time a TDMP has been applied to a church project. This means the county’s treatment of this project will create a precedent for future development.
- Parking is inadequate. The number of required parking stalls was calculated in a manner inconsistent with the county parking ordinance.
- Less than half of the circular “prayer hall” area was used to calculate required parking because the outer perimeter of the room, defined by 26 pillars, was considered to be a “foyer” and thereby excluded. Notably, there is no evidence that a portion of a room has ever before been defined as a “foyer” for any prior church building project in the county.
- 16 of the 26 “prayer room” pillars are decorative and, if removed (or never built), would permit the total area of the room to be used efficiently, further undermining the “foyer” designation and discrediting the parking calculation methodology used.
- Novel interpretation of county codes establishes a precedent for future mega-church developments.
- At the appeal hearing Sufism states that none of their projects will require more than 70 parking spaces, even if all participants were to drive. However the impacts of centralizing the wide range of member activities at a single sanctuary site were not addressed by the EIR.
- The environmental impact report says that staging of construction trucks will occur “outside the neighborhood” but fails to define the area of the “neighborhood” or suggest viable locations for the staging area. This is a big deal given the project’s size and scope and may impact adjacent incorporated areas of Walnut Creek and Lafayette.
- The EIR’s soil excavation and removal estimates are 30% less than the applicant’s estimates, as stated in a 2009 letter. This means the EIR may understate the total duration of the excavation period by as much as three months. Subsequent correspondence from the applicant reduced the estimates, though there is no assurance of its accuracy.
- Many construction impacts are not addressed in the EIR at all, including noise, air quality, and traffic.
- The draft and final EIR documents were released containing drawings that were known at the time to be inaccurate. Further, there is no updated set of building plans currently available to the public. A handwritten note in the final EIR simply states, “DCD [Department of Conservation and Development] did not update the plans.”
- Commit to Future Reform
The record shows this project has received favorable treatment as compared with other church projects in the county. This finding calls into question the integrity of the review process and the quality of results it yields.
Review of church building projects approved by the county during the past 10 years reveals disparity in application of county building codes. For example, some projects were treated as “mixed use” and required to have additional parking, apply for variances and accept other mitigation measures not required of Sufism Reoriented for similar conditions.
Review and re-engineering of the land use approval process is indicated, to ensure it reliably produces intended results.
By correcting and reissuing this project EIR, the county has an opportunity to address the legitimate concerns of area residents, protect the public safety and reduce taxpayer liability. No other option comes anywhere close to achieving these goals.