Buddhist center wins environmental permit

The Associated Press, July 1, 2005

HARTLAND, Vermont (USA) -- A monastic community of Zen Buddhists hoping to construct a religious training center in Hartland cleared a major hurdle when state regulators granted them an Act 250 land use permit for the project, including a large new septic system near Lull's Brook that is being fought in court by a local watershed group.

The United Buddhist Church acquired its land in 1998 and established the Green Mountain Dharma Center. The church operates Buddhist teaching centers in Vietnam, France and California, and has been pursuing an expansion of its facilities in Hartland, currently home to around 20 Buddhist nuns, for five years.

"We are very pleased it went through," said Timothy McCosker, a friend of the Unified Buddhist Church who attended the permit hearings on behalf of the community this year while the nuns were on retreat in Vietnam. "It's taken a long time."

The permit, issued Tuesday by the District 3 Environmental Commission in Springfield, grants the church most of what the group requested, including permission to build 15,000 additional square feet of dormitory and meeting space for as many as 143 people at one time, 111 parking spaces, and a septic system with the capacity to pump 9,500 gallons of wastewater per day.

However, it also requires that the church put its 148 acres into a conservation easement to be held by the town of Hartland and denies it the ability to hold any large events on the site by preventing it from using buses to take visitors and limiting the number of people on the site to 143 at any one time.

The group originally was planning one-day workshops for 750 people at the Dharma Center twice a year during the visits of their leader, Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Han, to America.

The church has already promised to adhere to both conditions and others in a contract with the town's planning board signed in April. In exchange, the Hartland planning board, which had an advisory role in the permitting process, agreed not to oppose the project.

The 750-person events, though desired, are not essential to the fundamental teaching mission of the center and will be held elsewhere, said the church's lawyer, James Goss of Rutland.

"Because the town seemed to really care about that issue, we decided to walk away," Goss said.

Opponents say they are still concerned about the impact of the development.

"The threat to Lull's Brook is the same as it was before," said Mark McElroy of the Lull's Brook Watershed Association.

The group still contends, as it did throughout the Act 250 hearings, that the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources incorrectly issued the retreat an indirect discharge permit for its septic system.

Excessive nutrients from the waste processed in the proposed leach field on Unified Buddhist Church property would end up in Lull's Brook, leading to algal blooms and changes in the species makeup of the brook, the association argued.

The watershed association has appealed the state septic permit to the state Environmental Court. The group also expects to appeal the Act 250 permit, McElroy said.