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Hindu Temple Plans Uncertain

Times Staff Writer

It was proposed as the largest Hindu temple and cultural center in Southern California, an ornate structure with the kind of religious status held by the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles.

But when a nonprofit Hindu organization selected Chino Hills farmland for the project, residents in this wealthy bedroom community of San Bernardino County protested vehemently, saying it would generate too much traffic, ruin the city’s rural atmosphere and become an unwanted regional attraction.

Objections also surfaced from opponents who said the project would turn Chino Hills into a “Third World city” and a haven for terrorists. One petition to stop the project said the temple would play a role in “changing the city’s demographics forever.”

Now, three weeks after the Chino Hills City Council blocked the project by refusing to allow the temple’s spires to exceed the city’s height limit, local Hindu leaders are struggling to decide whether to fight the decision in court or continue their four-year search for a home base for Southern California’s burgeoning Hindu population.

“Our issue was very clear: We would like to be an asset to the community,” said Govind Vaghashia, a spokesman for the project proponent, Bochasanwasi Shree Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, a Hindu branch commonly known as BAPS.

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Adam Eliason, chairman of the city’s Planning Commission, supported the Hindu project, calling it an asset to the city. “It’s a beautiful building with wonderful landscaping and water features,” he said.

Hindu leaders say the project is significant not just for Chino Hills residents but for Southern California’s growing Hindu population, which hopes for a grand, beautifully sculptured temple that would celebrate the history and culture of the religion. They said many BAPS Hindus now worship at a converted union hall in Whittier.

“The Indian population is growing very big in Southern California,” said Nadadur Vardhan, president of the Hindu Temple Society of Southern California, which operates a large temple in Calabasas that serves a different Hindu branch.

Statewide, the number of Indian residents nearly doubled over the last decade to 314,819, keeping California the national leader. Census figures show that of the Asian subgroups in the state, the Indian population shot up the fastest during the 1990s. Experts estimate that nearly 85% of Indians are Hindus.

The Chino Hills temple “would be a matter of pride for most Hindus in Southern California,” said Vinay Lal, an associate professor of South Asian history at UCLA.

The fight over the Hindu temple in Chino Hills is the latest of dozens of skirmishes around the country in recent years over plans to build bigger houses of worship, land use experts say. In August, a 20,000-square-foot Sikh temple opened in San Jose after a 10-year battle with neighbors.

Chino Hills is home to about 500 Hindu families, according to BAPS officials. The 2000 Census estimates that 1,320 of the county’s 7,368 residents of Indian descent live in Chino Hills. But the city has no Hindu temple. Hindu residents must drive to temples in Whittier or Riverside to attend weekly services.

As envisioned, the 164,372-square-foot BAPS facility -- including a temple, a cultural center, two gymnasiums, classrooms and living quarters for swamis -- would have served Hindus throughout the region.

The battle over the temple and cultural center dates to 1989, when BAPS representatives made plans to build the project on a 15-acre parcel near the commercial center of the city. But city officials had plans to build a civic center on the same property. Under a deal negotiated between city and BAPS representatives, BAPS let the city buy the land, and city officials promised to help BAPS find an alternative site in Chino Hills.

After investigating 20 locations over four years, BAPS chose a 20-acre parcel of farmland east of the Chino Valley Freeway, near a sewage treatment facility, several industrial firms and a mobile home park.

As word spread about the project, Chino Hills residents began to inundate City Hall with letters and e-mails, most in opposition to it.

Many opponents said the project would clash with the city’s rural atmosphere. The city of 73,000 is one of the county’s safest. Itsmedian household income is $84,000, highest in the county. The city, built on gentle hills, has 30 parks, 30 miles of trails and 3,000 acres of permanently preserved open space.

Opponents also voiced concern about the potential traffic generated by the project. But a city report that included an analysis by a private consultant and a study at a similarly sized Hindu facility in Bartlett, Ill., concluded that the project would not create traffic problems.

“Anybody who keeps coming up with traffic as an issue is not listening,” said Mayor Gary G. Larson, the only member of the council to consistently vote for the project.

Some of the opponents also seemed worried that the temple would draw Hindus to live in the city. “Unless you want the current demographics to look a bit like New Delhi, don’t do this,” said an e-mail dated Aug. 9, 2003. Another letter suggested Muslim extremists might blend in among Hindu worshipers, making the temple a “hiding place for terror.”

The project generated so much controversy that a Sept. 14 council hearing was moved to a high school gymnasium to accommodate more than 1,000 people, many waving placards, cheering and booing.

During the meeting, Gary Thomas, a 14-year resident of Chino Hills, told the council that he feared the temple would “be the dominant architectural feature in the city for 50 miles.”

“It’s not our heritage,” he told the council. “It’s not our community.”

After the raucous six-hour hearing, the council voted 4 to 1 to approve the project’s permits and environmental clearances but rejected a measure to allow the temple’s spires, which would range from 52 to 80 feet, to exceed the city’s 43-foot height limit. A staff report notes that the proposed site already has two utility poles that are at least 80 feet tall.

City Council members who opposed raising the height limit said their objections were based solely on concerns about the potential traffic and visual impacts of the project.

“It’s not my desire that we have a huge draw in our community” said Councilman Ed Graham, who voted against the height exemption.

BAPS representatives have refused to reduce the height of the spires, saying the design was based on proportions dictated in Hindu scripture.

Vaghashia said local BAPS leaders will confer with religious leaders in India to decide what steps to take next.

Vaghashia said he was surprised by the council’s decision because the height of the spires was never mentioned by city staff or the Planning Commission, which approved the project last year.

“Since the inception of the project, the height has been the same,” he said.

Some project supporters believe the council was swayed by opponents, who threatened to recall or vote against council members who supported it.

“It’s a different religion,” said Anoop Gandecha, a Chino Hills resident who takes his wife and son to the Whittier Hindu temple every week. “Accepting it is going to take awhile.”

Jitendra Dave, a Hindu and five-year resident of Chino Hills, said he is most upset that some opponents described the temple and cultural center as a potential eyesore.

“It’s a place of worship,” he said. “I’ve never heard a place of worship being an eyesore.”


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