A year after the county Board of Supervisors decided that a Buddhist group could not build a meditation center on its property, the group now plans to return to the board with a much more ambitious proposal.
Last year, the board rejected a proposal by leaders of the Natural Buddhist Meditation Center to create a lush garden with streams and waterfalls that would spread over most of the five-acre site at 14036 Don Julian Road, in an unincorporated area near La Puente. The Thai group had envisioned the garden as a place where visitors could meditate and pray, and offer food to three monks who live on the premises, a typical Buddhist custom.
Neighborhood residents angrily opposed the plan, saying existing problems would only worsen. In the past, residents have complained about food odors from outdoor kitchens, early morning prayers and music blasting over loudspeakers, and visitors blocking traffic by parking cars on both sides of the street.
Now, in addition to the garden, the Thai group recently disclosed plans to build a temple that would hold as many as 100 people and possibly be two stories high. The group expects to complete the blueprints and submit them to the county in September.
Some neighbors were surprised to hear that the plan was being resurrected.
"Here we go again," said Glenn Brown, 36, upon hearing of the new plan. Brown, whose property overlooks the Buddhist center from the south, was among the group's most vocal opponents last year.
'Same Thing Again'
"Admittedly, they've cut down on outdoor kitchen activities, and curtailed the big events, but if they develop further we'll be back to doing the same thing again," he said.
Brown recalled a visit by Sri Wat, a famous Thai monk, that attracted hundreds of people who parked their cars on the street and congregated on the property.
The Natural Buddhist Meditation Center is one of three Thai Buddhist centers in Los Angeles County. The other two are in Hollywood and Ontario.
Because the property is zoned for light agricultural and residential uses, a conditional-use permit is required for religious activities.
Hopes for Success
Leaders of the Buddhist group said that, during the past year, they have befriended some of the residents who originally complained about them and hope the new plan won't arouse the same opposition.
After presenting their plan to the Board of Supervisors last year, congregation members agreed to cut down their activities and moved Sunday services--their busiest event--to a nearby elementary school. But the board denied them permission to continue operating the religious center.
The center's mid-block location in a residential area made it inappropriate for daily religious activities, the board decided at the time. Neighbors had circulated petitions complaining of excessive noise, food odors and traffic problems during the two years the center operated without the required permit.
But Kun-Ying Chutapa Varavarn, one of the center's founders, said religious and racial prejudice were the main reasons the board didn't allow the Buddhists to operate a center. Christian groups have successfully obtained permits to build churches in the same area, she said.
"They were afraid we were going to bring a lot of Orientals in," she said. "We try to be good neighbors, but if people don't like you, you can't do anything about it."
Mark Volmert, an aide to Supervisor Pete Schabarum, who represents the area, said the board's decision had nothing to do with prejudice.
"We've had an awful lot of religious groups apply to build new facilities or modify facilities in Supervisor Schabarum's district," he said. "It all depends on the specific proposal on a specific site, regardless of the religious group. The question is, 'Is it in an appropriate place?'
"Last year we felt it was a poor location for the intended use, with poor access and poor traffic circulation," he said. "We offered to help find them another location, but they never came back."
The three monks who live at the center continue to receive visitors every day, despite warnings from the county that their property can only be used for residential or agricultural purposes.
Group meditation and prayer is held every morning and evening in a temple that formerly was a garage, each day attracting 10 to 20 Buddhists of Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian descent, according to Varavarn.
Archarn Rien Sandung, the head monk, denied the center is doing anything wrong.
"This is a monks' residence," Sandung said. "Wherever monks live, people come to pay respect to them. It's for daily life. This is our custom."
"We are doing the best to make the Board of Supervisors understand more about the purpose of this place, (which is) for meditation and retreat," he said.
Dick Frazier, supervising regional planner for the county's Department of Regional Planning, agreed that the cultural differences make this a difficult case for county officials.
It is hard to determine whether the center is violating zoning regulations because "in a way with the Buddhist religion it's the sort of thing where you drop in and visit monks. It's not like they have a certain set schedule within a well-defined area, although they have drawn some rather large groups," Frazier said.
If granted a permit to build a temple, Varavarn said, the Thai group will move its Sunday services back to the center.
That prospect worries Warren Bates, 37, another neighbor who recalls waking up to early Sunday morning prayers before the services were moved to the school.
"When they chanted I could hear them in my bedroom, like an outside auditorium," Bates said. "I called the sheriff once when they were going pretty good."
But Bill Lohff, 66, who lives next door to the center, said some neighbors are prejudiced against the Buddhists on religious grounds and merely use noise and traffic as an alibi.
"There's no doubt about it, it's religious discrimination," Lohff said last week. The monks "are very quiet and very nice people. Many other things are going on in the neighborhood that are much more obnoxious than what the Buddhists have done. Sunday soccer games, house parties, good Lord!"