WALNUT CREEK -- The City Council Tuesday quickly dismissed a challenge brought by residents over the mammoth Safeway project planned for the intersection of Ygnacio Valley and Oak Grove roads, meaning it is still a go.

Already under construction, The Orchards is a massive 24-acre project which includes a new 55,000-square-foot Safeway store and other shops, perhaps a bocce-themed restaurant, as well as open space and senior housing.

Steve Elster, representing the Friends of Walnut Creek, brought an appeal of the City Council's June approval for the project. He argued that because the public hearing was closed on June 3 and then public comment reopened at a subsequent meeting June 17 but not given notice on the meeting agenda, the City Council violated the Brown Act, California's open meeting law.

Elster argued the city intentionally gave out misinformation, which kept the public from coming to speak their minds at the June 17 meeting. The public, he said, didn't think there would be opportunity for public comment at that meeting. Elster said the violation should force the council to reopen the entire process and reconsider the project.

"We insist on remaining informed, not misinformed, about your conduct of our business and our participation," said Elster, who played recorded excerpts from the June 3 and June 17 City Council meetings where officials used the words "public hearing" and "public comment" interchangeably.

City Attorney Steve Mattas said Elster is wrong, and that the city council acted within the law. There was no Brown Act violation, Mattas maintained.


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Elster is the lawyer and lead spokesman for the group Friends of Walnut Creek, which filed a suit in Contra Costa Superior Court in July alleging "the city illegally pre-committed to the project" and the environmental report "failed to adequately respond to comments."

The suit asks that the city be required to perform another environmental report for The Orchards.

From the beginning, a vocal group of residents opposed development on the half-vacant parcel at the southeast entrance to the Shadelands Business Park. Concerns have ranged from removal of trees, additional traffic to how a new center will impact other adjacent grocery-anchored centers. But this was not the point of Elster's appeal.

Mayor Kristina Lawson questioned what Elster hoped to gain after coming to 30 public meetings on The Orchards project.

"You have appealed all of the actions, you have filed a lawsuit against the city. ... What are you trying to accomplish, how could we help you achieve that objective?" she asked.

Elster responded that he wants the same thing he always wanted -- for the residents to be heard on the impacts of this project.

"The process proceeded in omission and consideration of those impacts," he said.

At Tuesday's meeting, only one other person spoke, saying he would have come to the June 17 meeting had he known he would have a chance to speak.

Contact Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617 or enardi@bayareanewsgroup.com

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