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Board Rules Buddhist Temple Can Add School

Times Staff Writer

Supporters of a Buddhist temple won a victory over their angry Sun Valley neighbors Tuesday when the Los Angeles Board of Zoning Appeals voted 4 to 1 to grant the temple’s request to build a large Sunday school.

The vote came after hours of spirited testimony from temple supporters, homeowners and activists who had jammed the hearing room at City Hall in downtown Los Angeles.

And it stemmed from a dispute that culminated last October, when, in the company of several thousand Thais and Thai-Americans, the supreme commander of the Royal Armed Forces of Thailand laid a “foundation stone” at the Wat Thai Buddhist Temple on Coldwater Canyon Avenue. Ceremonially, the act was a step toward construction of a $3-million Sunday school building, designed to solidify the temple’s status as a spiritual and cultural hub for Thais in Southern California.

Objections by Neighbors

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Some of the temple’s neighbors, however, viewed the ceremony as proof that temple authorities had no intention of observing city restrictions on the size and activities of crowds drawn to the site.

Before a crowd of several hundred supporters of the temple, and a smaller but no less adamant group of residents opposed to the proposal, the board addressed a zoning case that has long been vexing to the city administrators.

At issue was the future of one of the nation’s largest Thai Buddhist temples, and the effect of that temple on the neighborhood.

Established in 1972 as a “meditative center” for about 150 Thais, the temple has grown enormously in the last 13 years, along with much of the rest of the Southeast Asian community in Southern California.

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Hundreds Visit Grounds

Today, hundreds of Thais visit the grounds of the temple on weekends to worship the Lord Buddha and participate in cultural activities. Thousands more arrive monthly to observe an annual series of Buddhist holidays. An ornate, traditional meeting hall has been built on the two-acre site, with the help of financial aid sent by officials in Thailand.

At the temple’s dedication in October, 1979, as many as 40,000 visitors were drawn to an appearance by the supreme patriarch of Thai Buddhism, or the Thai equivalent of the Pope.

But some say that growth was at the expense of a quiet neighborhood of single-family homes surrounding the religious center. For several years, the residents of some of these homes have regularly complained that the temple brought noise, traffic and litter to the area, in violation of the 1973 conditional use permit that allowed the center to operate.

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At Tuesday’s hearing, the board convened to consider an appeal of Associate Zoning Administrator James Crisp’s March decision to turn down the request to build the 38,000-square-foot Sunday school. Crisp had ruled that temple authorities had not done enough to comply with zoning provisions.

‘Grave Reservations’

Over the objections of board Chairman Nikolas Patsaouras, the only member to vote against the Sunday school, the board rejected arguments that the temple had outgrown its bounds.

Patsaouras said he had “grave reservations” about increasing the crowds at the site, predicting that the Sunday school would only fuel the growth of the temple.

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But the rest of the board sided with a series of speakers who argued that the proposed addition would help contain the crowds by allowing the temple to conduct more of its business indoors. David Wygand, a spokesman for about a dozen homeowners opposing the expansion, said he was not sure whether the board’s ruling would be appealed to the City Council’s Planning and Environmental Committee.

“We are tired of being painted as villains,” he said. “We have rights, too. We’ll have to think about it.”


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