Zoning for Buddhist temple backed by county panel

By SHEILA B. LALWANI, Journal Sentinel Online, Aug 15, 2005

Yorkville, Milwaukee (USA) -- Members of the Racine County Economic & Land Use Planning Committee approved a petition on Monday that would keep the plan to build a Buddhist temple in Caledonia alive. The zoning change sought for the temple "is consistent with the town's plan," said Frank Risler, manager of the Racine County Planning Department. "We think it's in the public's interest to proceed with the plan."

The Wat Lao Wattanaram Buddhist Temple of Wisconsin submitted applications for the building and zoning of a Buddhist colony near Highway V and 7 1/2 Mile Road in Caledonia earlier this year.

The petitions have stirred a controversy among residents who believe the town should be reserved for residential use and say a Buddhist temple would attract too much traffic.

"It doesn't make sense," said Janice Kenyon, who lives close to the proposed project. "We moved out to Caledonia years ago to get away from the congestion."

Roughly 75 residents from Caledonia filed into the Ives Grove Complex Auditorium to voice their concerns. Planners had eyed that area for a conservation subdivision of single-family homes, which residents say would have contributed to the town's tax base.

The area is largely rural, close to I-94 and bordering on Milwaukee County.

Supporters of the Buddhist temple contend residents are uncomfortable with the proposed project because of personal prejudices.

Buddhists are interested in constructing a temple, meditation building, fellowship hall, Buddha building and facility for nuns on 13 acres.

"Most of them aren't really giving it a chance. They don't understand that this is for our religion," Milay Chansouk said of opponents of the plan.

Some residents contend that Caledonia is an odd choice for a Buddhist temple.

Residents near the proposed development have been meeting informally and have filed letters of concern with Racine County.

"It's not the best use for this land," said resident Carla Beyerl. "This is an area where - if we can - we should try and preserve it."

The Buddhists who would use the temple are mainly immigrants from Laos or first-generation Laotian-Americans living in southern Milwaukee County. They say the land is ideal because of its location. Followers want more land for a cultural center, school and burial site.

About a dozen Buddhists attended the meeting to introduce themselves to their possible neighbors and explain their plan to the community. Throughout the evening, they passed out information on Lao culture and explained that they need more room.

Kham Luang, who is spearheading the project, said Lao Buddhists need a place to call home and a school to teach Buddhism. He sat through much of the meeting fielding questions and assisting Buddhist monks in addressing public questions.

Buddhism was founded in present-day Nepal thousands of years ago.

Buddhists believe that spiritual fulfillment lies in rejecting the attachment to the self and material goods. Buddhism is one of the largest religions in the world, with about 3 million practitioners living in the United States. Roughly 1,500 to 2,000 live in the Milwaukee area. Buddhist temples are sprinkled throughout Wisconsin.

The committee told Wat Lao Wattanaram that it wanted more information on the group's specific plan for the 13 acres. Wat Lao Wattanaram said the group aims to build the temple in about the next 10 years.

The Racine County Board will review the proposal.

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