Contested Jewish cemetery clears major hurdle, awaits next step

Partisans of a hotly contested Jewish cemetery in Contra Costa County are one step closer to resting in peace. But they’re not there yet.

A proposed graveyard in unincorporated land between Orinda and Martinez was approved in a 4-0 vote by Contra Costa County’s Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, March 23. This vote was necessitated after a group of the would-be Jewish cemetery’s neighbors known as the Briones Hills Preservation Alliance appealed a 5-1 greenlighting by the county planning commission in January.

With the county and Gan Shalom (Garden of Peace) cemetery in agreement, the neighborhood group’s last remedy against the graveyard’s construction would be to take its case to Contra Costa Superior Court. The group has until April 20 to do so, and Carole Dwinell, its chairwoman, told j. the members “have not ruled that out as an option.”

Members of Gan Shalom Inc. — a nonprofit composed of representatives of five Contra Costa synagogues — will be holding their breath until then. Still, in the words of Gan Shalom President Frank Winer, last week’s vote was “a big deal.”

“The Jewish population of central Contra Costa is growing and, lo and behold, in a year or maybe two there won’t be any space left” in the Jewish sections of other cemeteries, he said.

Gan Shalom bought the land around two years ago for between $1.1 million and $1.2 million, but objections to the creation of a cemetery by neighboring residents and ranchers cropped up immediately and continue unabated.

Among other complaints, the neighborhood group contended a cemetery could drain neighboring well water, contaminate the area with pesticides, increase traffic, induce vandalism or simply violate zoning laws.

Winer said he understands the group’s concerns, but feels Gan Shalom has bent over backward to accommodate its neighbors. In return for the supervisor’s acquiescence, for example, Gan Shalom agreed to not use pesticides and install a monitoring well to oversee the water level.

In addition, claimed Winer, Gan Shalom ran a $30,000 water study at the neighborhood group’s request, and, when the results of that test were rejected, ran a subsequent $100,000 study.

“I think their major concern is, they have this little valley with their cow pastures and horse ranches and they don’t want anything to change,” he said. “They perceive us as the camel’s nose under the tent in starting a change. And we are a change, but as benign a change as anyone could expect.”

Dwinell noted that Gan Shalom “has gone to a great deal of trouble and has been concerned about the issues we’ve brought up. However, I think it was pretty clear we felt some of their data was incorrect.”

Some of the area’s families have lived on the land continuously for more than 130 years, she continued, and they understand the fragility of the local ecosystem and water table. However, she said, “If this does go through, of course we’ll welcome them.”

The cemetery plans to develop only five acres over the next 25 years, and just 30 acres of an 83-acre parcel, in toto. Susan Lefelstein, the associate executive director of Sinai Memorial Chapel, said the proposed cemetery would take care of community needs for the next 200 years.

Edward Shaffer, a Walnut Creek attorney representing Gan Shalom, said a lawsuit attempting to block creation of the cemetery would almost definitely target its environmental impact, an area in which he felt Gan Shalom had done its homework.

Still, “There are never any guarantees when you go to court what a judge may or may not consider to be important.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.