After hearing from at least 50 speakers - including two callers on other continents - spanning about six hours, the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved the Spieker Senior Development residential care facility in unincorporated Walnut Creek.
Spieker will build 354 housing units within 30 single-story buildings, an 85,000-square-foot medical center, a multi-story clubhouse, a recreation building, a maintenance building, and a parking garage on the 30-acre site.
The site, known as Seven Hills Ranch, is unincorporated open space, mostly surrounded by Walnut Creek, near Heather Farm Park. The developer will remove 353 trees from the site, which they said will be replaced by more than 1,000 new trees.
"This is not going to remain pristine open land," said board chairperson Karen Mitchoff, whose District 4 includes the area. "It's private property. It was private property before the developer bought it and it's still private property."
The space is zoned for housing, requiring a change in zoning to accommodate the mixed use. Board members said the property would be developed either way, and there's a need for more senior housing.
"(There are) good policy considerations in having this type of infill development for a badly needed type of housing - for seniors," District 1 supervisor John Gioia said. "Every single-family home that a senior moves out of to move into this project frees up that home right for a family."
Speakers showed which side they were on by their green or blue colored clothing. Most were against the project, at least 13 of whom were children. Most identified as students of nearby Seven Hills School, which will be impacted by the development.
Common complaints included the effect of four years of construction on the school and surrounding neighborhoods, additional traffic, lack of emergency access, and lack of public benefits.
Opponents also complained it doesn't meet local affordable housing needs and would remove too much wildlife habitat.
"This project is a huge commercial enterprise with over 225 employees ... plunked down in the middle of a residential area," said Rosalie Howarth, a nearby resident and a leader of Save Seven Hills Ranch, a group which gathered about 4,000 signatures in petitions against the project.
"The developer pretends it's housing when it suits them but then they're very quick to point out that they are not bound by the kinds of restrictions and amenities required of true housing developments because they are not housing," Howarth said. "You can't have it both ways."
Supporters said it's a good use of the land. Spieker has agreed to implement a financial assistance program whereby the facility operator would establish an annuity of $2 million toward subsidies for lower- income households that would not otherwise have the financial means to live in the facility.
Spieker will also pay $3 million over 10 years to county parks, trails or open space in the Walnut Creek area. Spieker has said security concerns preclude it from allowing trails and public access to the site, but the company would dedicate 2.4 acres along the site west boundary for public purposes.
"This project provides much needed independent housing for seniors and it also makes available neighborhood housing for families as those seniors sell their homes to move into this community," said Amy Worth, an Orinda city councilmember and board member of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
County staff said traffic projections for single family housing on the site would be higher than what would be generated by the Spieker development. Staff said the county projects 166 single family homes could be built on the site, not including extra attached units that could be added.
Amenities will include a swimming pool, tennis and bocce courts, dog parks, gardening center, walking trails, gym, auditorium, restaurants, bar, theatre, library, and clubhouse. The site will include 594 parking spaces.