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Walnut Creek Magazine

County Planning Commission Denies General Plan Amendment to Seven Hills Ranch Developer

Nov 08, 2022 12:49PM ● By Harper Klein

After a seven-hour meeting on October 26, the Contra Costa County Planning Commission voted five to one denying approval of a General Plan Amendment to change the land use designation on Seven Hills Ranch from Single-Family Residential to Congregate Care Retirement Community. 

Hundreds of Walnut Creek residents joined the meeting by Zoom, expressing outrage over the developer's unwillingness to mitigate the impacts of Spieker's Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC) on adjacent neighborhoods and Seven Hills School.

“We’re concerned about the project as it currently stands,” said Kathleen McNamara, Head of School at Seven Hills School.  “We are not opposed to development. We’re concerned about the project in its current state. While we started multiple conversations with Spieker to ask for minor compromises, we’ve been dismissed and ignored.”

Proposed by Spieker Senior Development Partners in October 2020, the project known as 'Diablo Glen' consists of 354 housing units ranging from three-and-four-story apartments to single-story “cottage residences,” an 85,000-square-foot healthcare center with capacity for 100 skilled nursing care residents, a clubhouse, a recreation center, a maintenance building, and 594 parking spaces. 

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, multiple zoning changes, and an encroachment permit from the City of Walnut Creek for access to the community from Kinross Drive off Marchbanks Drive. 

"We recognize the county is under enormous pressure to provide housing," commented Michele Sheehan, founder of the grassroots organization Save Seven Hills Ranch at the hearing. "On the other hand, we have a petition signed by over 4000 Walnut Creek citizens asking the County to deny the developer a General Plan Amendment. The majority of the comments that accompany the petition stress concerns about overbuilding, loss of green space, as well as lack of public access and connectivity to the city park Heather Farm. More time and full knowledge is required for the County to properly assess this plan."

It remains unclear if a CCRC counts toward the state's RHNA (Regional Housing Needs Allocation) quotas. By designating the project "non-residential", Spieker essentially bypasses all applicable community benefits associated with RHNA laws. 

November 2020 letter to John Kopchik, Director Contra Costa County Conservation & Development Department from Wilson F. Wendt, Miller Starr Regalia, Counsel for Spieker states: 

"CRCs consistently have been found not to constitute housing that is subject to laws and ordinances governing residential uses. California statute and case law make it clear that care facilities for the elderly present a proprietor-lodger relationship rather than a landlord-tenant (housing) relationship. It is consistent with both the legal treatment of CCRCs, and their significantly lower level of usage of utilities and lower impact on public services, to treat CCRCs as commercial uses for such purposes and accordingly to charge lower fees than those applied to residential housing uses."

Planning Commissioner Sanjiv Bhandari cited increased traffic, narrow roads insufficient for fire truck access from Homestead, San Carlos, and Kinross, and lack of economic benefits to the city and county as some of his major concerns. 

“This is not thoughtfully done,” said Bhandari. “I’m an architect who has designed many assisted living communities. There are multiple issues with this project. As the roads stand today, there is no way fire trucks can make the turn into the development. The large retaining walls present other issues. The developer has had two years and has not made a single change to the plans. I recommend we send this project back for further analysis, and the developer works with the neighbors and school, shows good faith, and makes some changes.”

The Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors will hold a hearing on November 29, 2022 at 9:00am on the project. The public can attend in person at 1025 Escobar Street in Martinez or via Zoom. 

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