CONCORD -- The city has hired a biologist to settle a fiery dispute between a Seeno company and residents who say the developer destroyed an owl habitat on property where they plan to build six homes.
The dispute centers around a windmill at 4985 Olive Drive, and the teepee-like wooden structure on it that was removed in January. Its removal turned heads in the bird-friendly neighborhood, where residents say a family of barn owls has lived for generations. And it is one of several concerns neighbors have as Discovery Builders, a Seeno company, moves through the planning process.
At odds are a report from a Seeno-hired biologist that found no owl activity on the site during a one-day visit, and eyewitness accounts from several neighbors disputing the Seeno report. The biologist noted that any owl presence could stop or delay construction between Feb. 1 and Aug. 31, a period of breeding and nesting for owls.
The habitat was removed on Jan. 31, according to eyewitness accounts from Vicci Stillwell and her wife, Rylle Jones, who live across the street.
Stillwell and Jones said they awoke at 7:45 a.m. on Jan. 31 to the noise of workers removing the boards, and watched two barn owls fly out of the windmill and take refuge in a nearby tree. They later noticed the habitat was gone.
The couple documented the removal in before-and-after pictures shared with this newspaper, along with photographs showing owls on the property and
"It made me cry," said Stillwell. "It's horrible what they did."
Jackie Seeno of Discovery Builders has denied the habitat was active, saying on Thursday, "There has been an assessment done on the property; there are no active nests on that property." She declined to comment further until public hearings on the project begin.
The Contra Costa-based Seeno family and its group of companies have built scores of homes in the Bay Area, most notably in Pittsburg. The company also has a checkered environmental record, having wracked up millions of dollars in fines over the past decade for violations such as filling creeks and ponds and destroying red-legged frog habitat.
For the Olive Drive project, Discovery Builders plans to build six homes, each with a net square footage above 8,000. These will be two-story homes; all existing homes on Olive Drive are single story.
Residents Ed Roche and David Current have concerns about a fuel tank they believe is still buried on the property, and about access to nearby Gyger Court. The plans show Discovery Builders plan to move a fence to the edge of the property line, which would narrow the court and possibly block fire engines from entering, they said.
"They are not going to blend with the neighborhood. That's the bottom line," said Roche.
The neighborhood on Olive Drive is off Ayers Road, and was once home to ranches. Most of the ranch-style homes there today were built in the 1950s, but some date back as far as 1937. The family of barn owls has been spotted as far back as the 1950s, when the windmill habitat was first built.
Dennis Almond, 60, said his 28-year-old grew up with the owls and used to study the bones in the owls' pellets. Bob Vitrano, 63, said the owls have emerged from the habitat at the same time every night.
"You can set your clock (by) it," said Vitrano, who has lived on Olive Drive for 30 years. "Go in your backyard and here comes the owl, generation after generation. So it's really sad."
The city is planning on hosting a meeting between neighbors and Jackie Seeno next month before a Design Review Board meeting on the project on March 14.
For now, Stillwell and Jones have erected an owl nesting box in their front yard. They say the two owls, which they named Luna and Orion recently moved in.
"I'm really glad they moved in there," Stillwell said. "They were devastated."
David DeBolt covers Concord and Clayton. Contact him at 925-943-8048. Follow him at Twitter.com/daviddebolt.