Walnut Creek neighbors battle massive Seven Hills Ranch project | News

Seven Hills Ranch is surrounded.

And not just by opponents of a planned development on the site. There’s an online petition with nearly 3,700 signatures, asking Contra Costa County to “say NO to a proposal for an oversize development next to Heather Farm Park. Let’s join together to ask that this 30-acre piece of Walnut Creek’s natural heritage is saved.”

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

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

The group Save Seven Hills Ranch says 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 employees, though opponents say the number will be closer to 500 when including part-time employees. They won’t be able to get to work without going through Walnut Creek and the neighborhood in which the leaders of the anti-development movement, Michele Sheehan and Rosalie Howarth, live.

“They would have to raze the seven hills and dump them into seven gullies,” said Howarth. “There will be one hill left. And it will take three to four years to blast these hills down.”

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

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

The fenced-off site is a strange juxtaposition to the city around it — like a private mini-wilderness area (this day deer, turkeys, and a rabbit appeared on the Kinross side, where there’s shade and a seasonal wetland that’s not very wet right now).

The complaints are numerous: too many trees removed, too much traffic on a residential street from hundreds of new commuters that will be too far from public transportation, and no public access.

Despite hundreds of people potentially living there, Spieker likely won’t have to adhere to the state and local rules governing residential developments — like providing affordable housing or the equivalent in development fees.

The housing units would be part of occupants’ “care contract” and not owned or leased by residents. According to the project information and description document on the county’s website, the residential care units “would be licensed by the State of California as a non-residential institutional use and the county has determined the project does not contain any residential component for the purposes of state and local land use implementing regulations and ordinances.”

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

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

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

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

“It’s designed for development,” Bourne said. “Nobody wants development on their street. It’s a type of housing that’s been identified as a need. It’s senior care a half-mile from John Muir Hospital. There are already 700 families on the waiting list. Those aren’t people who would be moving to Walnut Creek. They’re already here.”

But is Spieker willing to compromise with neighbors?

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

Bourne says the project will include “a boatload” of open space, though it likely won’t be accessible to the public, especially after other Spieker care facilities had to completely lock down during the pandemic. He said he can’t even enter a Spieker facility without presenting ID.

He said the company is open to contributing to local affordable housing funds and will preserve at least part of the wetlands.

“If someone wants to do school tours of the wetlands, we’re open to that,” Bourne said. “But not unfettered 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 oaks provide far more food for at least 100 species of native birds — including three species of owls and four kinds of hawks — than the younger replacement trees Spiker will plant.

“To take out keystone oaks that protect wild birds and wildlife — it’s the wrong time to take out 400 native trees,” Howarth said. “And they will replace them with landscaping trees. We need a better plan, and I can think of five better plans, easily. The possibilities are endless.”

That will be up to appointed officials. The county has collected public feedback on the project’s draft environmental impact, and will likely respond to them this summer, Bourne said. Once that wraps, it goes to the county planning commission and, if successful there, heads to the county Board of Supervisors, likely this fall.

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

Sheehan and Howarth say a green buffer around the project, public trails, and fewer trees removed might temper their opposition.

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

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