WALNUT CREEK -- A plan for a large sanctuary center won final county approval Wednesday afternoon, likely ending a long-running battle that pitted religious devotion against neighborhood values.
The Contra Costa Board of Supervisors voted 4-0 Wednesday to allow the 350-member Sufism Reoriented group to build a 66,000-square-foot worship center in the Saranap neighborhood just outside Walnut Creek.
The Sufis' plans had set neighbors against one another in disagreements over traffic, parking and other effects. Wednesday's hearing drew 400 to the Lesher Center for the Arts in downtown Walnut Creek; more than 700 attended an all-day hearing at the Lesher Center on Feb. 21.
Supervisor Gayle Uilkema, whose district includes the site, listened to the meeting by phone Wednesday but did not vote. She also listened to the Feb. 21 hearing, explaining later to this newspaper that doctors told her to rest as she battled pneumonia.
After hours of public testimony Feb. 21, the supervisors heard more Wednesday. They discussed and added detailed conditions in ultimately deciding to support the project.
"I am as happy as I could be," said Bob Carpenter, a Sufi overseeing the project, which has been in the works for four years. "We are very grateful to the supporters in the community."
Supervisors said that while parking was a major concern for them as well as opponents -- 74 spaces total for the building -- Sufis have proved over several years that they walk and carpool to services.
"I am satisfied that the parking issues have been addressed," Supervisor Karen Mitchoff said. "It is difficult to get citizens to participate in reducing car trips. I want to commend the members of Sufi who have been doing this."
Supervisors added conditions to make sure any change in ownership of the facility or parking availability, or violations of the conditional-use permit would trigger a county hearing.
The sanctuary -- two-thirds of which will be underground -- will house a worship hall, classrooms, offices, a bookstore, a cafe and skylights on 3 acres in the small unincorporated neighborhood of Saranap.
The white-domed structure will be a place of worship for Sufism Reoriented followers who believe in the teachings of Meher Baba and in a core of divine love at the heart of all spiritual systems.
The project also was criticized for the size of the building and its aesthetics, traffic hazards, flooding issues and the overall discontent with the 1,400-page environmental report.
"It's a dark day for unincorporated family neighborhoods in Contra Costa County," said Wayne Fettig, president of the Saranap Homeowners Organization.
Neighbors have worried that their semirural neighborhood will be forever changed by the Sufi sanctuary site, where single-family homes once stood.
"There are so many things that have been shoehorned in -- it's an elephant balanced on a toothpick," Fettig said.
This likely brings to an end a debate that had grown intense in recent months, notably during four public meetings that preceded approval by the county planning commission in November.
Sufis say they plan to start building within a few months and that construction is expected to take 18 months to two years.
A lawsuit could delay or halt that process. Fettig wouldn't comment Wednesday on whether his organization would sue to block the center's construction, and he said he had no control over what his neighbors may do on their own.