A place to pray

By Robert Lowell, American Journal, Jan 24, 2008

Buxton, Maine (USA) -- A bid by Maine's only Cambodian Buddhist temple, located on a rural road in Buxton, to hold celebratory gatherings drew strong opposition from neighbors Monday at a packed Buxton Planning Board meeting.

No decision was made on the request by Watt Samaki Cambodian Buddhist Temple, at 128 Back Nippen Road. Several residents voiced their concerns, citing traffic, noise and the septic system capabilities. This week's public hearing was continued until Feb. 11.

Twenty years ago, the same temple, facing heavy opposition, was unable to establish a house of worship in Buxton.

"It's been an uphill battle all the way," said Beth Sturtevant, a volunteer from North Yarmouth who is lending a hand to the temple.

The Watt Samaki Temple, which began in 1985 in Portland, serves more than 350 families. The temple bought the Buxton house and attached building, which formerly housed a printing business, about three years ago. Two monks, Bak Him and Chantrea Mean, live in the home. The temple holds four large celebrations a year.

According to Harry Schnur, a Bowdoin College senior studying the Watt Samaki Temple for a thesis, lay people support the monks as part of their tradition. Faithful followers take food daily to the monks. He said the temple doesn't have any paid employees.

The town says the temple is allowable in the rural zone, but does require a conditional use permit from the Planning Board. Nearly two years ago, Buxton received a similar request for a permit on March 20, 2006, and the Planning Board considered it on May 14, 2006, but no decision was made because the monk they were working with at the time did not provide paperwork the board had requested, according to Keith Emery, a board member who was chairman at that time. That monk was neither Him nor Mean.

On Oct. 14, 2006, the town accused the temple of holding a gathering without a permit. The town ordered the temple to halt the gatherings, threatening a fine of up to $2,500 for each violation. The temple complied.

Navan Leng, temple president, said last week a few neighbors complained about parking when the temple first moved there. Leng said there was miscommunication between the temple and the town.

Both the town and temple officials agree a communication problem developed. Buxton Code Enforcement Officer Fred Farnham said there was a personality conflict involving the monk seeking the permit. "It got off on the wrong foot," Farnham said in his office before Monday's meeting.

Janice Laughlin and her husband, Al Laughlin, who board horses, live across the street from the monks. They said last week the monks are industrious.

"The monks are always working outside, improving the property," she said. "They're wonderful."

But the Laughlins share concerns with other neighbors about traffic volume in a residential neighborhood, parking, noise and the septic system on temple property.

Alycia Campbell, an abutter at 120 Back Nippen Road, said she has four small children and she moved to her home for the quiet. "The impact of traffic will be enormous," Campbell told the Planning Board.

Jean Harmon, chairwoman of Buxton selectmen who lives on Back Nippen Road, said the temple people aren't from the area and might not be aware of children in the neighborhood. She said the temple didn't regard ordinances in the past, and urged the Planning Board to consider past complaints.

Rusty Miner, 145 Back Nippen Road, has two young children and also moved to the neighborhood for its quiet. He praised the temple for it people, but was concerned about safety on the road.

"I'm so worried about my kids," Miner said at the public hearing.

Answering questions about speeding on the road, Jeremiah Ross, chairman of the board, reminded residents that the panel isn't responsible for enforcement of ordinances and laws. "We have no authority to enforce ordinances," Ross said.

"I'm concerned about safety on the street," said Peter Burns, 164 Back Nippen Road.

Burns said he isn't opposed to the temple per se. He said the temple attracts out-of-state cars and that the large gathering two-and-a-half years ago had 100 cars.

"I challenge the town to enforce the ordinances," Burns said.

The number of big celebrations held at the temple each year also became an issue. The Planning Board is mulling over restricting the number of large gatherings at the temple and wanted to hear a specific number. Sturtevant said it could further define dates and events.

But, Pirun Sen, 56, Portland, chairman of the temple's board of directors, said after the meeting he is concerned about restriction of events at the temple because of the impact on families and future of the temple.

"My concern is how we can keep up with conditions put on us," Sen said following the meeting.

He said he wondered what would happen if, for example, a family lost a member and a funeral became necessary.

Sen, who came from Cambodia in 1981 to flee the dictator Pol Pot, said the temple met opposition in an attempt to locate in Buxton 20 years ago. Sen said the temple had bought an option on a property with a chicken barn on Simpson Road in Buxton. He said the temple lost in a final public hearing, packed by opponents in 1989.

"It was crowded, no place to sit," said Sen, who added that the temple also lost its $3,500 option on the property.

The temple then bought property in Portland as a first step. But it was too small and the temple leased space from churches for its celebrations.

A few neighbors have been supportive of the temple's quest. Yet, though the temple recently distributed fliers door-to-door inviting neighbors to an open house, no one came from the neighborhood.

But Sturtevant is confident that the temple would receive town approval in February, and praised Farnham for his help. "Fred has been great," she said.

The board Monday required the temple to submit revised plans to construct a parking lot for 67 cars on the property. Parking along Back Nippen Road by those attending temple events is forbidden for safety reasons, and the temple Monday agreed not to allow parking on the road.

Based on square footage of the temple building, the Planning Board said the building occupancy would allow only 200 people at a given time. The temple would also need a permit from the state's fire marshal.