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Thai Temple Brunch Dispute Returns to Zoning Board

By Riya Bhattacharjee, The Berkeley daily Planet, February 11, 2009

Berkeley, CA (USA) -- The nearly year-long zoning battle over Sunday brunch at the Berkeley Thai Temple may finally come to an end Thursday when members request a permit modification from the Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board that would allow the temple to sell food weekly instead of only three times annually. This proposal has sparked much opposition from a group of neighbors.

Last April, when members of Wat Mangolakaratam—as the temple is formally known—approached city officials to construct a Buddhist pagoda on its premises at 1911 Russell St., some neighbors criticized the institution for running a commercial restaurant in the guise of a religious assembly.

Complaining that the Sunday festivities, which sometimes started as early as 5 a.m. but have now been pushed back to 8 a.m., were hampering their quality of life by bringing noise, trash, odor and congestion to the area, the neighbor group demanded that the event be shut down or at least moved to an alternative location.

Temple supporters defended the brunch service by explaining that taking donations from the public in exchange for food was an ancient custom in Thai culture—one that helped Buddhist monks to earn their living and funded Sunday school and performing arts on the building’s premises for those who otherwise would never be able to afford them.

However, an inquiry by the city’s Planning Department into the Thai temple’s original use permit, dating back to 1993, revealed that the temple had violated its permit repeatedly, prompting the zoning board to turn to the Seeds Community Resolution Center to carry out mediation between the two parties to settle the dispute.

The temple’s supporters rallied neighbors, community members and organizations in an effort to save the popular Sunday brunch, creating a website, www.savethethaitemple.com, and a Facebook group that lists more than 1,300 supporters as of Monday.

A report from city officials to the zoning board includes the results of the most recent mediation sessions, which took place on Jan. 10 and 29 and Feb. 4. The report says that representatives from the temple and three neighbors representing 16 households on Oregon Street were unable to come to any kind of resolution about the frequency of the Sunday brunch and the size of the crowds it attracts.

The mediation report notes that although the temple indicated that it would be cooking food inside a kitchen and installing an odor-absorption ventilation system and rubber matting to absorb the noise of pots and pans clanging, the neighbors were skeptical that these steps would do anything to alleviate the problem.

City officials said in their report that the proposed project would relocate the Sunday brunch from the rear of the property to a pavilion that would replace the current Buddha room adjacent to the South Berkeley Public Library, moving the activities farther away from the houses on Oregon Street.

It would also restrict the number of visitors to 200, who would be able to come in and buy food between 10 a.m and 1 p.m., and the temple would post additional signs around the block discouraging people from parking in driveways.

The temple also plans to build a “green wall” between the brunch spot and the neighboring houses, which they hope will act as a buffer on Sundays.


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