Religious freedom does not give a faith community the right to run roughshod over reasonable planning guidelines and does not make those who question such a move bigots.
Backers of Sufism Reoriented are arguing discrimination because neighbors are challenging plans by the congregation of less than 400 to build a 66,000-square-foot sanctuary in an unincorporated neighborhood between Walnut Creek and Lafayette.
The residents of Saranap have legitimate concerns about the effect of a building with more square footage than a football field and more than two-thirds that of the iconic Mormon Temple in Oakland. The temple sits on 18 acres, while the Sufism plan would be jammed into three.
Hundreds of supporters and opponents turned out this week for a Contra Costa Board of Supervisors public hearing on the project. No decision was made; the board will next consider the plan Wednesday.
To their credit, the Sufis propose placing 70 percent of the floor space underground, thereby reducing visual impact. They've chosen an appropriate site, between residential and commercial portions of the neighborhood. While the sanctuary design -- a 35-foot-tall dome surrounded by 12 smaller ones -- is unusual and might not appeal to some, it could be beautiful if executed well with promised landscaping.
Nevertheless, this proposal has serious problems: the safety of the driveway access near a major road bend, the size of the project and the horribly inadequate parking. The plan includes only 74 parking spaces under a county provision that allows developers to provide fewer spaces in exchange for car pooling and public transportation options. While the county should encourage reduced automobile trips, the policy application here is absurd.
If traditional county codes were properly applied, they would require about 300 spaces, based on the building's square footage. County staff grossly reduced that number by counting only a small part of the sanctuary in their calculation. They further reduced it because many current Sufis live nearby and promise to walk to services, and because Sufis insist their membership will not grow in the future.
That's a ridiculous way to set parking requirements. First, no one can know if future members will live nearby and walk. Second, the prediction of fixed membership is unenforceable and runs counter to common sense when the Sufis are building such a large facility.
Most significantly, the county conditions would apply not only to the Sufis but to a future owner as well. There's no way to impose driving and membership restrictions on the next group.
It is because of the county staff's ridiculous application of parking rules that the Sufis can propose squeezing a huge facility on a relatively small site. More parking would require reducing the building size. That's what should happen.
The Sufis' attorney, prominent Contra Costa lawyer Sanford Skaggs, hinted repeatedly that if county supervisors shrink the project, he's ready to claim religious discrimination and sue. some Sufi supporters testifying Wednesday argued that neighborhood opposition was faith-based.
We saw no evidence of that. Neighbors voiced understandable concerns about a project that's much too big. The First Amendment protects not only religious expression, but speech as well. Residents are entitled to have their say -- and they should be listened to.