Saranap Residents Divided By Sanctuary Plan

110 people speak at public hearing; county supervisors schedule Feb. 29 session to continue deliberations on Sufism Reoriented project.

There are divisions in the Saranap neighborhood, and they were reflected all day Tuesday through the prism of a hearing about plans for a bigger Sufism Reoriented sanctuary.

At the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors hearing, about 110 people — most of them residents of Saranap in unincorporated Walnut Creek — testified for and against on the controversial plans for a 66,000-square-foot new sanctuary for the Sufism Reoriented congregation in the area of Boulevard Way and Warren Road.

The county board, after closing the public hearing Tuesday, scheduled a session to continue its deliberation on the project (and appeal of November's approval by the Planning Commission) for 9 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 29, again at the Hofmann Theatre in the Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek.

Tuesday's hearing, held at the Lesher Center to accommodate the large crowd, is for a larger project than the current Sufism Reoriented building on 3.1 acres in Saranap.

Hundreds of people attended the hearing. The first floor and balcony of the Hofmann Theatre at the Lesher Center for the Arts were virtually filled in the late morning, and then the crowd thinned out as the afternoon wore on.

There were non-Sufi neighbors testifying for the project and non-Sufi neighbors dead set against it. Also trooping to the theatre microphones were plenty of Sufi members with enthusiasm for finally getting a sanctuary, designed with a white  domed look after more than three decades worshiping in a gray building, a converted nightclub that doesn't look like a house of worship.

There was a lawyer for the Sufism Reoriented congregation, and a lawyer representing the Saranap Homeowners Organization and several individual neighbors opposing the project.

Many neighbors objected to:

  • the size of the project clashing with the "semi-rural" character of Saranap.
  • the scale of construction and excavation with a 27-foot hole in the ground, most of the planned building being underground.
  • parking.

Many supporters cited:

  • the Sufis' history as good neighbors in Saranap.
  • the environmental harmony of the design with a parklike garden that will be open to the neighborhood.
  • the sanctuary being a buffer zone between the single-family residential neighborhood at one end of Boulevard Way and the commercial, light industrial character of the other end where Boulevard Way comes into Olympic Boulevard.
  • the need for the Sufis "to bring diverse activities together under one roof," said Sufism Reoriented Murshida (spiritual leader) Carol Conner.

The new sanctuary is designed in a circle with domes because "a circle has no beginning and no end and expresses eternity," said Conner. The dome will have tranquil interior spaces in soft white marble.

A look at the Sufis

Indian spiritual figure Meher Baba founded Sufism in 1952. The Sufism Reoriented congregation has been stable in membership at 350 for decades, said Bob Carpenter, project coordinator for the congregation. In Walnut Creek they are known for their school, the Meher school close to the present sanctuary, including preschool and day care. They have a 70-person chorus and active musical drama program.

To the Lesher hearing, the Sufis and their supporters wore oversized lapel buttons festooned with green ribbon. At one point, project coordinator Bob Carpenter asked the supporters to stand and about three-quarters of the hundreds of people in the Hofmann Theatre stood. In public hearing testimony later, project opponent Gladys Housley said she wanted to ask of those who stood in support, "How many of you live in the Saranap neighborhood? If you do not live here, you cannot fully appreciate the change or the impact this building will bring to our rural community."

The Sufi congregation has spent about $800,000 in county fees so far in several years of the county planning process, Carpenter said. Its current sanctuary, a few hundred feet away from the new site, has no room for a library, meeting room or archive room, Carpenter said.

The highest dome in the design will be 33 feet, 6 inches above grade, approximately the height of the adjacent LeBoulevard Apartments building, Carpenter said. About two-thirds of the Sufis' building would be below grade.

A sampling of Tuesday testimony from opponents of the project:

• Ellen Osmundsen said the project is too big. The county board should assemble a task force to examine the effect of the excavation required. She suggested Sufi leaders meet with the Saranap Homeowners Organization to come up with "a smaller design to accommodate all of your needs."

• Marilyn Arno said it's the biggest divisio she's seen in 61 years in Saranap. The project is too big, she said — larger than the White House, nearly as big as the Hearst Castle.

• Stacey Bradbury said construction will disrupt two day care facilities on Warren Road, with the excavation and construction causing families to take their children elsewhere.

• Sherilyn Fry of Warren Road operates one of those day cares. Parents come to bring their children and they look at outdoor play. With the construction, "I believe they will consider other family child care places … How will the county compensate me for my loss of income? Why won't the board act to protect us now?"

• Patricia Smayda said she moved to Saranap because of the wooded setting. She objects to all large developments. She said there are other places in Saranap where a big sanctuary could be built.

• Sylvia Deward questioned why the Sufis used a high profile architectural firm from New York "to bring a lot more people into our neighborhood than we really need." Sufis represent 5 percent of the Saranap population, she said. The excavation for the project would bring water problems to the whole neighborhood, she predicted.

• Engineer Steven Siegel said there was insufficient sight distance for a Sufi driveway to bring traffic onto Boulevard Way in a curvy, two-lane stretch with no sidewalks. It fails to meet Caltrans standards, he said.

• Dennis England said, "I've always valued the quiet nature of our neighborhood with a semi-rural atmosphere. I have fought various proposals to take away from that … We do not want to have a showcase, as this has been portrayed."

• Allan Ferguson of Warren Road said the southern entrance to the property would put people at risk. "I feel there's been no attempt to look at the traffic or impact it can have on a rural road."

• Randall Harris opposed the "clearcutting" of the project, removing oaks and replacing them with non-native trees. He said, "I am opposed to any kind of a variance for onsite parking arrangements."

A sampling of supporters:

• Colleen Thomas, who has lived in the neighborhood seven years, loves that people walk their dogs and their children and stop to say, "Hi. What's going on?" When she heard of the Sufis' faith in the goodness of the heart, she was initially skeptical, but she has since concluded "it is a phenomenal belief system."

• The Rev. Brian Stein-Webber of Contra Costa Interfaith Council endorsed the proposal, calling the Sufis "valuable partners."

• Rob Schick, a doctor at John Muir Health, likes to walk the neighborhood and feels the Sufi project will be a beautiful addition. "The route on Boulevard Way is an ugly way into Walnut Creek and this will be a beautiful improvement." He objected to the tenor of some dissent. "I don't like misrepresentation and falsehood being spread — it's clear to me there was a xenophobic atmosphere here." (Earlier in the hearing, opponent Colleen Mihelitch said the suggestion of religious bias was "a guise to take attention away from this building — it's too big.")

• Matt Isaacs of Kinney Drive recalled the blight in the neighborhood decades ago, when there used to be a former fishing trawler rotting in a lot. "This project will create a wonderful parklike atmosphere," he said. "Sufism Reoriented is bringing new life to our neighborhood."

• Bernard Schwartz of Warren Road said his part of Warren Road used to be a parking lot where trucks were loaded; "it was noisy and unsightly." When Sufism Reoriented purchased an adjacent lot, "it was transformed into a beautiful parsonage and garden" with lively Easter parties. "If we can endure the temporary construction inconvenience, I feel it will be another tremendous enhancement to our neighborhood."

• Rich Klier, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1968, said he liked the way the project will contribute to a parklike neighborhood. "I'm impressed with the quiet, thorough approach with which the sanctuary plan has been presented."

• Mary Dunne Rose noted the community divisions, saying she has friends for and against. She concluded the Sufis are an asset to the community, and felt she would "speak out against the discrimination against this organization."

• Lorraine Granit said the Sufis have already demonstrated the effectiveness of a Traffic Demand Management Program by encouraging congregation members to walk and carpool to services. 'It's not something we hope will work," Granit said. "We know it will work through actual experience." The Sufis' implementation has reduced automobile traffic by more than 52 percent, she said.


Sanford Skaggs, a Walnut Creek lawyer representing the congregation, said the experience of saving car trips with the TDM, which is encouraged by county policy, shows the Sufis will handle the load fine with 74 spaces planned. Over the last four years, the maximum number of cars parked for any worship serve was 69, Skaggs said. Once a year, there's an event that uses overflow parking at the Meher School, he said.

is a red herring, Skaggs said — the Lafayette school superintendent has consistently said "the applicant can continue to do what they've done for 30 years" using that lot, Skaggs said.

Opponents are concerned that the larger sanctuary will draw weddings, bazaars, graduation parties and concerts that will strain the planned parking, said Mark Redmond, an engineer who has lived in Saranap since 1987. He said opponents counted 199 cars parked on adjacent streets with overflow from a Halloween Party at the current sanctuary.

Resident Jim Baird suggested county planners use story poles to give people an idea of the dimensions of the domed project. "I request that you decline the application as proposed and send it back to the Planning Commission for more thorough and proper examination," he said.

Skaggs said congregation surveys showed that 84 percent of the residents within 300 feet of the project supported it.

Resident Mary Benedict, who testified against the sanctuary plan, said, "I don't know who counted that 84 percent of people who are for it. Almost every single house around has a 'Save Our Saranap' sign in it."

The project does not meet the county's land use standards, including parking provisions, said attorney Stuart Flashman, representing the Saranap Homeowners Organization and some individual residents. "The community is very willing to work with the applicant to come up with a mutually acceptable project," said Flashman.

Supervisors asked county staff for further analysis of a number of issues before the Feb. 29 continuation of the matter:

  • the number of trucks used in excavation.
  • the use of sound walls and decibel measuring during construction.
  • Caltrans sight distance requirements.
  • overflow parking.

Supervisor Gayle Uilkema, whose district includes the proposed Sufi sanctuary, did not attend the hearing, but was listening in by telephone.

Martha Ross February 22, 2012 at 06:07 AM
Lance, thank you for your very extensive coverage on today's hearing.
Saranap Resident February 22, 2012 at 06:37 AM
Yes - thank you for a very complete article. One correction though - the Halloween party with the extra cars parked on the streets was actually at the Meher School, not at the current Sanctuary location. The extra street parking was the same as it is when the Swim Club on Leland has a meet.
Roger Bird February 22, 2012 at 03:01 PM
Yes, again, Lance Howland. It was a very fair and complete article. I have nothing to add, which is the complement to your article
Joseph David Dacus February 22, 2012 at 03:45 PM
Thanks for your article. It was a very moving day of presentations and remarks, all heart felt, and a demonstration of democracy in action (as Chair Piepho remarked at the end). I'd like to add my compliments to the obvious cooperation between the county staff and the administrators of the Lesher Theater for presenting things so well, and to Sufism Reoriented for footing the entire bill.
Tom Lewenz February 22, 2012 at 05:41 PM
Gayle Uilkema did not attend? Tell me she's not seeking re-election...
Talat Halman February 22, 2012 at 05:55 PM
You say Meher Baba "founded Sufism in 1952." Actually Meher Baba gave the _Charter_ for Sufism Reoriented to former disciples of Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927). Hazrat Inayat Khan first brought the ancient tradition of Sufism to Europe and America in the 1910s and 1920s. Meher Baba, in his Charter for Sufism Reoriented instructed his Sufi disciples to practice meditations (on God's Names) that go back at least as far as the 9th century and to read Sufi texts that go as far back as at least the 11th century. Many Sufis identify the first Sufi as, variously, Adam, Seth, and the Prophet Muhammad. So Meher Baba reoriented and reestablished the ancient spiritual tradition of Sufism.
Chris Nicholson February 22, 2012 at 06:30 PM
No religion/cult has ever announced that it was "new." People are naturally skeptical of things that are both "new" AND supernatural, so this is not a winning strategy. They all claim to restore an ancient faith (whose origins are conveniently prehistoric) and/or to tap into timeless forces of nature / the universe.
Chris Nicholson February 22, 2012 at 07:32 PM
@Joseph: Was that directed at me? Did I say something factually inaccurate? If so, please correct me.
Annabelle 1026 February 22, 2012 at 09:25 PM
@Joseph, give it up. It's not in any way about religion!
michael frederick February 22, 2012 at 10:29 PM
Annie, Chris First, Mr. Dacus misrepresents himself as a professional with an objective opinion. The reality, however, is that he lives over the fence from the murshida and his wife is a published Sufi poet. Promoting sanctuary is his #1, #2, #3, and #4 priority; ethics, rational thought, planning integrity, neighborhood concern, etc. are so far down his list as to be unworthy of mention. The irony, here, is that Mr. Dacus and his Sufi group maintain they are the victims of religious bigotry despite the fact they've been in the neighborhood for over 35 years and can't site one example. Despite this minor set-back, they must maintain this in order to have RLUIPA continue to dominate the County process, to the detriment of established planning practices / codes that actually balance Sufi rights with those of neighboring property owners... Did anyone catch Sandy Skaggs' RLUIPA threat of litigation to the supervisors yesterday? The major point: Anyone who doesn't readily adopt whatever I represent as fact is religiously bigoted. I had a flashback to the movie Braveheart, when the king opines: "I can't send my son, the mere sight of him would make my enemies take up arms." I'm not even an attorney and I'd like to jump into court with Mr. Skaggs to get some of that action -- I'd pay money to watch him assert this in court. It says a lot about the county that such nonsense has governed the proceedings.
Roger Bird February 22, 2012 at 11:10 PM
Talat, I think you have it right on. However, if Meher Baba changes the name and gives it a new charter, and not all of the Sufis individuals of the previous order become part of the new order, and all the old Sufis have to recommit to the new order with all it's new rules and regulations and orientation, then isn't that a founding.
Saranap Resident February 23, 2012 at 01:08 AM
"Despite this minor set-back, they must maintain this in order to have RLUIPA continue to dominate the County process, to the detriment of established planning practices / codes that actually balance Sufi rights with those of neighboring property owners..." Hmmmm.... I don't believe RLUIPA was ever mentioned when the EIR was presented to and approved by the Planning Commission, nor were any codes avoided using the RLUIPA argument. My understanding is the final EIR met all code requirements. RLUIPA has not dominated any County process as you state. I'm assuming you have not read the FEIR or attended the hearings, or you would know that. Yes - it's potential use going forward was brought up, but it has not been part of anything I've seen demonstrated up to now.
Carson February 23, 2012 at 05:22 AM
Interesting that one speaker yesterday liked the 'traditional church' in the neighborhood idea and others compared this project to other churches. I am a bit curious about these comparisons when at other meetings the Suffis state they have no plans to grow which would appear it is very exclusive. Does this church have 'open doors for all' like most traditional churches? Will it have tax exempt status? If most of the nearby residents are opposed to the design and size, what is the Suffis response or argument that this project will benefit the neighborhood?
michael frederick February 23, 2012 at 05:49 AM
Saranap Resident, Hmmmm .... 66,000 sq ft of building with a parking requirement on less than 3,000 sq ft of it. Did you see that "demonstrated"? I don't think one has to be a planning expert to giggle, here. That's "to code", only in the sense that staff had to make a series of tortured decisions to get it there ... and, the plan still doesn't meet it, incidentally. As one resident pointed out yesterday -- he goes through more intense code scrutiny when trying to renovate his house than the Sufis have endured on 66,000 sq ft that will turn the entire area in a redevelopment zone for three years. And, your OBJECTIVE opinion is that RLUIPA hasn't governed process? Do you think Skaggs made the threat because Sufis are chomping at the bit to conform to the process / code or to continue seeking preferential status to undermine it?
Saranap Resident February 23, 2012 at 06:25 AM
Michael - from what I understood at the hearing (if I understood correctly), the parking codes have more than one option, and the TDMP (I think that's the correct acronym?) was the option that has been applied for based on the walking/carpooling patterns of the congregation. Is that not an alternative in the parking code? Oh - and if you reread my opinion above, it was that I never heard RLUIPA mentioned or brought up through the process of getting the EIR approval from the Planning Commission. It sounded like you were implying that RLUIPA has been governing the County process all along.
Hectar Macho Camacho February 23, 2012 at 06:41 AM
C'mon folks. Was anyone surprised to hear RLUIPA being waived as a tactic. Please! this "card" is being played due to less certainty of the "failed" project moving forward "as-is". While there are hundreds of folks on both sides of this debate there are only a handful that share a fence line with the Sufi group. If the spineless County can not strike down this project based on the scope, I will personally seek legal counsel being that my family will be directly impacted. This will be for both the Sufi group and the Country.
WENDY LACK February 23, 2012 at 07:04 AM
The Times editorial board has cut to the heart of the matter: http://www.contracostatimes.com/news/ci_20021669/contra-costa-times-editorial-residents-have-legitimate-gripe With this appeal, the Board has an opportunity to set right the issues that were overlooked by the Planning Commission.
Saranap Visitor February 25, 2012 at 06:13 PM
Editor--- Very good coverage of the event!
Mani Sheriar February 25, 2012 at 07:08 PM
The Sufis do not need to cite one example of religious bigotry, as many can be easily witnessed by simply watching a video of any of the public hearings. You will hear our sanctuary repeatedly referred to as a mosque, a bunker, and an underground compound. You will see people express their fear for their children, who live near us. You will hear musings on what we might be up to with our secret underground meetings, even implying that we may be terrorists. You will hear about our secret Sufi agenda to push out all non-Sufis and take over the entire neighborhood. You will hear the name of our group and the name of our spiritual teacher repeatedly mispronounced and misspoken, even though the opposition has heard them said correctly time and again for years now. You will hear our integrity and our motives as a group repeatedly questioned and even ridiculed. You will hear our our spiritual symbol - the white dome - mocked and denigrated. You will hear assertions that we are creating some sort of national headquarters, or even a convention center. A quick trip around the web articles written about our project will quickly show that we have been referred to innumerable times in the comments as a cult, and even as freaks and zealots. What if we were Christian, or Buddhist, or Jewish? How would these comments sound in that light? How can you say that we experience no religious bigotry?
Lee daniels February 25, 2012 at 07:38 PM
@Mani Sheriar Good point. It's interesting to note that while the Saranap project (which IMHO is too big for the area) has incited so much controversy while a massive sporting complex built by a Catholic? order in Moraga has been pushed through without so much as a peep of criticism AND it is being built adjacent to a scenic corridor. Choose your eyesore, but it does seem that the Catholics are better at this than the Sufis.
Mani Sheriar February 25, 2012 at 07:55 PM
Thank you for this correction, Saranap Resident. You are correct. :)
Roger Bird February 25, 2012 at 10:33 PM
Mani Sheriar, thank you for that. I have been hear stuff like that, but it just didn't register with me that it was bigotry. It is bigotry. I am not sure that it is religious bigotry; it may be. But these little, tiny people are afraid of anyone who is different, and the new center is just bringing out their fears.
michael frederick February 26, 2012 at 12:16 AM
Mani, thanks for chipping-in with another OBJECTIVE opinion by a SUFI!!! This is exemplary of the attention that County staff have undoubetedly received throughout this process that explains why we're here: Zealous, tag-team, shot-gun, advocacy. It is the reason an 11,000 sq ft facility submitted for consideration by your Sufi group, deemed "too massive" by the County in 2002, is resubmitted less that a decade later as 66,000 sq ft. If 11,000 sq ft met Sufi needs in 2002 -- why have those needs grown 6-fold in ten years while, if we believe Sufi testimonials, Sufi numbers have and will remain constant? The fact that people mischaracterize your religion because, frankly, no one gives a rat's behind about studying a 300 member group is the opposite of bigotry -- it is INDIFFERENCE. You only wish people cared enough to express bigotry. I think that's the record over the last 35+ years. I know you'll find this hard to believe but, what people do care about is a 66,000 sq ft facility in their back yard that has insufficient parking and a number of other deficiencies that spill-over to adjacent land. My strong sense is -- although I'm not really in contact with others, as you undoubtedly are through Sufi connections -- is that opponents would have the same objections if this proposal were made by Catholics, Presbyterians, or the Elks Club.
Joseph David Dacus February 28, 2012 at 01:01 AM
Not quite sure of your facts Mr. Frederick, since there is one apartment complex more massive than the proposed building (and much closer to the street), and one old commercial market property, between where I live and where the parsonage is. Promoting rational and factual discourse about this fine project is of keen interest. Let me give you one example: Some of the neighbors (btw...the Sufis are also the neighbors, but you seem to always ignore that) have expressed concerns about traffic. To reduce vehicular trips, the applicant worked with Contra Costa 511 to arrive at a Traffic Demand Management Plan that has been in force for four years. This plan reduces trips, reduces traffic, and the siting of the perimeter wall (put in because a handful of neighbors didn't want to look at the building) is pushed back to greatly improve the sight lines at the curve near Kinney Drive. The plan also shows the addition of a number of traffic calming cross walks. So, those facts having been introduced, I suggest that this has NOTHING to do with traffic, otherwise the few neighbors who have complained about these things would be doing a little dance of joy over the results of their efforts having changed the design. But that is not the case is it? And the fact that a TDMP is encouraged by the very Supervisors who are hearing the appeal seems to have slipped your mind. I'd say this is exactly the time to bring up RLUIPA in the context of the current debate and expressed bigotry seen.
WENDY LACK February 28, 2012 at 08:35 PM
Here's my latest post over at Halfway to Concord, which may be of interest to Patch readers: http://www.halfwaytoconcord.com/what-will-county-supervisors-do-about-the-sufi-sanctuary/


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