Walnut Creek neighbors battle massive Seven Hills Ranch project


Seven Hill Ranch is surrounded.

And not only by opponents of a development project on the site. There’s an online petition with nearly 3,700 signatures, asking Contra Costa County to “Say NO to a proposed oversized development next to Heather Farm Park. Let’s unite to demand that this 30-acre piece of heritage nature of Walnut Creek be saved.”

It may be Walnut Creek’s legacy, but these 30 acres are on county land, surrounded by the city.

Spieker Senior Development Partners wants to build a large residential aged care development on the site, comprising 451 housing units, an 85,000 square foot medical center, a multi-story clubhouse, a recreation building, a maintenance and parking. garage.

The Save Seven Hills Ranch group claims that six of the “seven hills” will become 17,000 dump trucks of dirt. They also say the project will remove 403 trees, 380 of which are protected, and erect walls up to 21 feet high.

The site will attract a full-time equivalent of 225 staff, although opponents say the number will be closer to 500 when including part-timers. They will not be able to get to work without passing through Walnut Creek and the neighborhood in which the leaders of the anti-development movement, Michele Sheehan and Rosalie Howarth, live.

“They should raze the seven hills and throw them into seven ravines,” Howarth said. “There will be a hill left. And it will take three to four years to blast those hills.”

“It’s such a devastation to the landscape,” Sheehan said.

The site is just west of Heather Farm, owned by the same family for about a century, with a caretaker in a hilltop house. To the south is Kinross Drive, a residential street connected to Ygnacio Valley Road which would serve as the main access road.

The fenced site is an eerie juxtaposition to the town around it – like a mini private wilderness area (that day deer, turkeys and a rabbit appeared from the Kinross side, where there are shade and a seasonal wetland that is not very humid at the moment).

The complaints are many: too many downed trees, too much traffic on a residential street by hundreds of new commuters who will be too far from public transport, and no public access.

Although hundreds of people potentially live there, Spieker is unlikely to have to follow state and local rules governing residential developments, such as providing affordable housing or the equivalent in development fees.

The housing units would be part of the occupants’ “care contract” and would not be owned or rented by the residents. According to the project information and description document on the county’s website, residential care units “would be licensed by the State of California as non-residential institutional use and the county has determined that the project does not contain no residential features for the purposes of implementing state and local land use regulations and ordinances.”

“The developer doesn’t want it defined as a residential development,” Sheehan said. “The reasoning is that they don’t have to provide open space or inclusive housing. You can’t have it both ways. That’s our argument to them.”

“They’ve already said they’re not going to water down (their plans) because they don’t have to, because it’s not housing,” Howarth said. “They’re going to build right up to the edge of the 30 acres.”

Troy Bourne is one of Spieker’s directors. He is also a former mayor and currently sits on the city council of San Juan Capistrano, where there is a similar Spieker care facility (as in Pleasanton).

Bourne says he sympathizes with his neighbors but points out that the land hasn’t been an open space for more than a century.

“It’s designed for development,” Bourne said. “No one wants development on their street. It’s a type of housing that has been identified as a need. It’s aged care half a mile from John Muir Hospital. There’s already 700 families on the waiting list. These are not people who would move to Walnut Creek. They are already there.

But is Spieker ready to compromise with his neighbors?

“Absolutely,” Bourne said, adding that he spoke to members of Save Seven Hills Ranch as recently as the second week of June.

Bourne says the project will include “a boatload” of open space, though it’s likely not accessible to the public, especially after other Spieker care facilities had to close completely during the pandemic. He said he couldn’t even enter a Spieker establishment without showing ID.

He said the company was willing to contribute to local affordable housing funds and would preserve at least some wetlands.

“If anyone wants to do school tours of the wetlands, we’re open to that,” Bourne said. “But not unlimited access.”

Howarth, who is a board member of the Golden Gate Audubon Society, says removing so many native oak trees will have a ripple effect in the area. She said the oaks provide far more food for at least 100 species of native birds — including three species of owls and four types of hawks — than the younger replacement trees that Spiker will plant.

“To remove key oaks that protect wild birds and wildlife – now is not the right time to remove 400 native trees,” Howarth said. “And they will replace them with landscaping trees. We need a better plan, and I can easily think of five better plans. The possibilities are endless.”

It will be up to the elect. The county has collected public comment on the project’s environmental impact statement and will likely respond to it this summer, Bourne said. Once that wraps up, it goes to the county planning commission and, if successful there, goes to the county board of supervisors, probably this fall.

Walnut Creek has a say, as it must approve an encroachment permit for access. But that probably won’t happen until the county decides. The city could also decide that access through Kinross is a bad idea and ask Spieker to access the land through the busy Heather Farm Park. Which would probably create another subset of opposition.

Sheehan and Howarth say a green buffer zone around the project, public footpaths and fewer downed trees could temper their opposition.

“We want a better plan for this site,” Sheehan said. “And I think they can do better.” “There are places worth preserving within the urban boundary. And this is one of them.”

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Copyright © 2022 by Bay City News, Inc. Republication, redistribution, or other reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.

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