September 7, 2008

El Sobrante Sikh Temple Expansion Plans Progres, but Neighbors Still Concerned

By Tom Lochner

After almost a decade of fine-tuning, a plan to expand El Sobrante's Sikh temple to about four times its present size is ready -- or almost -- to go before the Contra Costa County Planning Commission.

But some neighbors seem no more ready to accept the plan than they were when temple leaders first floated it nine years ago.

Gurdwara Sahib, the Sikh Center of San Francisco Bay Area, wants to add a 33,000-square-foot community center, a 30,500-square-foot performing arts center with a 400-seat auditorium and classrooms, a 6,000-square-foot museum, two priests' residences and a two-story parking garage on its approximately 6.5-acre spread off Hillcrest Road in unincorporated El Sobrante; about a quarter of the property lies in the adjacent city of Richmond.

The existing temple is about 22,000 square feet and includes the worship hall as well as offices, prayer rooms and a dining hall.

Leaders envision the expanded temple complex as a regional center of Sikh scholarship and worship. Even in its present form, the temple -- with its five golden domes and perched on a hillside -- has become a prominent West Contra Costa visual landmark and has brought recognition to El Sobrante, at least among North America's growing Sikh community.

Some neighbors take a less global view of the temple, warning that its expansion could significantly impact their safety, quality of life and property values.

An initial study commissioned by the county Community Development Department identifies potential significant environmental impacts, both temporary and permanent, related to traffic, noise, infrastructure, soil and water. But mitigation measures agreed to by the applicants would reduce the impacts to less-than-significant levels, the study finds. As a result, the department on July 30 issued a notice of intent to adopt a so-called "mitigated negative declaration" of environmental impact.

The county Planning Commission has postponed to Oct. 14 a hearing on the temple originally scheduled for Sept. 23, to allow officials to consider written comments on the adequacy of the study, said county Planner John Oborne.

Several organizations have written the county urging it to demand a full environmental impact report.

One, the El Sobrante Valley Planning & Zoning Advisory Committee, submitted about 10 pages of written comments related to height and other variances sought by the temple, air and water quality, soils, traffic, utilities, drainage and adequacy of parking, among other concerns.

Hillcrest Baptist Church warns the county about liability in the event of landslides and urges denial of the application.

The Quail Hill-El Sobrante Homeowners Association at the adjacent residential subdivision says the study downplays noise and traffic effects. In an Aug. 7 letter, the association raises the specter of emergency response vehicles trapped in gridlock. It predicts that residents' views of the Bay will be blocked and urges Richmond and the county to concentrate on "preserving its medium-priced homes and not forcing our neighborhoods into low-income housing."

"Build homes and not monuments that only benefit a select few," the association urges.

J.P. Singh, chairman of the Sikh Temple Expansion Project, said the complex will serve the entire community as an emergency shelter; also, he said, the classrooms, performing arts center and other facilities will be open to the community at large. He said the study adequately addresses all the issues.

"We have crossed all the t's and dotted all the i's and done everything that was requested by the county," Singh said.

Reach Tom Lochner at 510-262-2760 or [email protected]

Originally published by Tom Lochner, West County Times.

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