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Buddhist monks continue to seek permit for center expansion
By LORELL FLEMING, North County Times, Nov 12, 2005
San Diego, CA (USA) -- A nonprofit organization run by a handful of Buddhist monks is seeking county permission to expand the Dai Dang Meditation Center on almost 9 acres the group owns at 6326 Camino del Rey.
The proposal calls for three buildings, each of several thousand square feet, to be added to the property that is already home to a few smaller structures, including a single-family home where the monks live, work and worship.
Opponents of the project have said the larger meditation center was certain to draw more visitors to the site and that they would bring more noise and traffic. They also have said that the new buildings, including a two-story dormitory for monks in training, will affect the neighborhood's serene setting.
Representatives for the monks and some community members who support the project say the expanded center will enhance the neighborhood and will not add traffic and noise.
"The main thing for the monks to do is to learn meditation, teach meditation and worship Buddha" said Frank Hoang, a spokesman for the group. "They also take care of the (center's) grounds."
Hoang and another consultant, Steve Maciej, have been representing the center in its bid to gain a major use permit from the county that would allow the expansion to move forward.
Hoang said he and Maciej are speaking for the group because the Buddhist religion does not allow the monks to be involved in the day-to-day pursuits of the project.
Dai Dang Meditation Center was founded in 2001 by the Vietnamese Buddhist Meditation Congregation as a place to study and practice Zen Buddhism, according to the center's Web site.
In early 2004, the group applied to the county for permission to expand the Bonsall facility. As part of that application, the Dai Dang center was required to present its plans to the Bonsall Sponsor Group, an advisory panel that makes land-use recommendations to the county.
It has since voted twice against the expansion plan, citing concerns about traffic and the effects of the center on the rural neighborhood.
Despite that, the monks are pressing forward with their request that the county grant the permit, Maciej said.
"They own the property here and they have the right to try to develop their property in this way ... just like anyone else in Bonsall has the right to develop their property within the law," Maciej said.
"If we get the permit, we'll have to comply with the restrictions it comes with, or the county will revoke our permit," Maciej added.
The county's Planning Commission will be the next agency to consider the permit request, weighing the group's application as well as the sponsor group's recommendation for denial.
The project could ultimately be appealed to the county Board of Supervisors.
According to the latest site plan submitted to the county Department of Planning and Land Use, the meditation center complex would consist of a 6,196-square-foot main hall, a 7,664-square-foot meditation hall, and an 8,936-square-foot dormitory for the monks.
There would be also 72 parking spaces created on the property.
The site now holds a 2,300-square-foot home, a trailer, at least one work shed and a stable that Hoang said was being used for storage. County officials had previously cited the center for using the stable as sleeping quarters for monks. Hoang said that practice has ceased.
One of the main purposes of the center is to serve as a monastery where monks learn the practice of Buddhist meditation, Hoang said.
The proposed expansion would make it possible for up to 30 monks to live at the center at one time, compared with a maximum of 10 allowed now, according to the group's application with the county. Eight monks currently reside at the center, Hoang said.
Always on Sunday
Sundays are busy days at the center, officials said. Monks teach visitors Dai Dang, a Buddhist form of meditation. Five special events each year, such as Vietnamese New Year and Mother's Day, are also celebrated there.
"It is also a place for Buddhism worship," Hoang also said.
Hoang said people had contacted the center about whether they could come there to meditate or learn to meditate. The proposed expansion would enable the center to accommodate them, he said. The center's Web site says it is open to all.
Dozens of residents in the Bonsall area have appeared before the Bonsall Sponsor Group and signed petitions against the expansion.
"My main objection is the size of the buildings ---- height and square footage," said Mike Hulsizer, who lives near the center and who opposes the expansion plan. "I'd like to see the property stay as it is."
Hulsizer is president of Bonsall Resident Action Group, which formed about a year ago in response to the meditation center project. The group has petitions containing the signatures of about 400 individuals in Bonsall and Fallbrook who oppose the permit, Hulsizer said.
For about four months earlier this year, the action group picketed near the center every Sunday. The picketers carried signs saying, "No mega project," "Keep Bonsall rural," and "What about our peace," Hulsizer said.
The Bonsall Sponsor Group said it first heard plans for the project in May 2004 and rejected them as inappropriate for the rural area.
The Buddhist group presented an updated version of its proposal to the Bonsall Sponsor Group on Nov. 1, though few changes were apparent, officials said.
Again, the sponsor group voted unanimously against it.
Bonsall sponsor group member Larry Sundram said after the vote that he and other group members still thought that the proposed buildings would not fit into the rural character of the Camino del Rey neighborhood.
Also, Sundram said, the group's request for reducing the buildings' height and square footage was not honored.
Leaders of the Dai Dang Meditation Center and their representatives recently met with representatives from the North County Times to discuss key points of the project. Hulsizer responded in a separate interview.
Among the subjects addressed:
Traffic: To help traffic flow more smoothly, the monks have hired a security firm to direct traffic during the special events, said Hoang.
At other times, he said, two monks serve as traffic attendants. One is on the street, and the other is in the parking area.
"Dai Dang advocates groups or congregations that visit to travel here in a bus or by car-pooling," Maciej said. He said the group was still waiting for the county to review the potential traffic effects.
"There is traffic in Bonsall, but it's on (Highway) 76, not on Camino del Rey," Maciej said. "Camino del Rey is not the main arterial to get into Bonsall. I think the traffic issue gets a little exaggerated."
Visitors: The bulk of their guests come on Sunday or on special events, according to Hoang.
On Sundays, about 80 guests show up. Special events will typically attract 200 people. There are five special events per year, and two more left for this calendar year.
An exception to this guideline is when about 500 people showed up when Most Venerable Zen Master, a major figurehead in Vietnamese Zen Buddhism, came to the center in Bonsall for a visit, according to Hoang.
"That event was the equal to the Pope coming to visit a church," Hoang added.
In all cases, the center's guests come throughout the day and not all at once, Hoang said.
But Hulsizer said he and others in the community find no comfort in that.
"Over time, their followers will grow in number, and who's going to monitor the numbers?" Hulsizer said.
Emergency access: The proposed secondary access to and from the site is Wrightwood Road, which is a private road, Hoang said.
"We have a right to use that road, too," Hoang added. "We pay a maintenance assessment fee."
Maciej said the monks and their visitors would only use that road for "life safety issues," such as for firefighters or paramedics needing better access to the area.
"If they follow through with it, keep the gate to Wrightwood Road locked and for use by emergency personnel only, that will be the best condition we'll get," Hulsizer said.
The Planning Commission has not yet set a date to hear the project, but the center and its opponents said they intend to see the issue through.
Despite the controversy, Hoang said the Camino del Rey location remains a good site for the meditation center.
"There's quiet and serenity in this area. It has the right feel," Hoang said. "It fits the profile for what we need for meditation."