A Developer’s Ambitious Plans for Seven Hills RanchMar 04, 2021 08:34AM ● By Harper Klein
Contra Costa County is considering a proposal from Spieker Senior Development Partners that would turn a 30.4-acre parcel of undeveloped land on the easterly end of Seven Hills Ranch Road into a senior community for 460 residents. Situated in an unincorporated area of Walnut Creek adjacent to Heather Farm Park, development of the property, formerly owned by the Hale family for over ninety years, requires a General Plan Amendment to change the land use designation from Single-Family Residential, Medium Density (SM) to Multiple-Family Residential, Congregate Care (CC).
“I’m a believer in the better, shouldn’t we ask for something more than this plan?” says Michele Sheehan who formed the community group Save Seven Hills Ranch in opposition to the project. “I’m a property rights person, but this is an example of infill that becomes overfill and overkill. It’s a beautiful open space area that is worth preservation. If we let this project happen, we will forever lose an opportunity to make something better happen on the land that retains some of the character, provides walkways for Heather Farm Park users, enhances the creek channel, retains wildlife habitats, and maintains ridgeline views.”
Along with the General Plan Amendment and multiple other zoning changes, the project requires an encroachment permit from the City of Walnut Creek to allow primary access to the site from a city road on Kinross Drive off Marchbanks Drive—requiring City Council approval, which Sheehan believes gives the city some leverage over the land use plans. “We’ve been in frequent communication with the City of Walnut Creek and we have no reason to believe that they won’t allow access,” says Sean Tully, principal planner for Contra Costa County who is overseeing the project.
As proposed, the Spieker Senior Continuing Care Community includes 302 apartments inside three-and four-story buildings, 52 single-story “cottage residences,” an 85,000-square-foot healthcare center with capacity for 100 residents who require skilled nursing care, a large clubhouse, a recreation center, a maintenance building, and 594 parking spaces. Support for the entire community is expected to require 225 employees. The only other Spieker retirement community in the Bay Area is Stoneridge Creek in Pleasanton.
Troy Bourne, a principal at Spieker, says the company has been looking for land in Walnut Creek for a senior community for over thirty years.“Residents of continuing care communities are attracted to quiet neighborhoods that provide walking opportunities and that are also convenient to medical centers and great shopping. We’ve been searching for an appropriate site for a continuing care community in Walnut Creek for almost thirty years. We feel the Hale family’s property is best suited to meet the needs of the city’s retirees.”
According to Tully, the project is entering the Environmental Review stage when county officials begin making assessments on the development’s impact on air and water quality, trees, wildlife, and traffic. Once completed, the review is open for public comment before a staff report and recommendation is drafted for the County Planning Commission. From there, it will make its way for final approval (or denial) to the County Supervisors, which Tully anticipates happening at the end of 2021. If approved, the project is expected to take three to four years to complete.
Save Seven Hills Ranch organizers lament that the proposed development overbuilds the land, flattens the rolling topography, and dramatically alters the property’s native landscape, which includes the removal of 350 trees. They point to the importance of maintaining a piece of Walnut Creek’s natural heritage, easily accessed from Heather Farm Park. So far, efforts to preserve the land as pure open space have been unsuccessful. However, a large and growing group of concerned Walnut Creek residents have gathered over 1100 signatures on an online petition at savesevenhillsranch.org to deny the developer’s application for a General Plan Amendment.
And history may serve as a guide. When a development in a portion of Shell Ridge was proposed in the early ’70s, a grassroots effort began in opposition. Citizens overturned the development in a referendum and formed a plan to purchase and protect open space. The result was the formation of Contra Costa Service Area R-8, approved by voters in June of 1974, which provided $6,750,000 to acquire open space land in and around Walnut Creek.
The original plan identified approximately 2500 acres of parks, open space, and trail easements to be protected. Later purchases and dedications have brought that number up to 2726 acres. The City of Walnut Creek now also manages land for the City of Concord and the Muir Heritage Land Trust.