Buddhist plan too much for some Caledonians

By Janine Anderson, The Journal Times Online, August 15, 2005

IVES GROVE, Milwaukee (USA) -- It's not that the applicants are Buddhists that upset Caledonia residents, it's the way they plan to develop the site.

Wat Lao Wattanaram Buddhist Temple of Wisconsin is requesting rezoning and conditional use of about nine acres at the intersection of Highway V and 7 Mile Road in Caledonia. The group wants to build a temple, fellowship hall, Buddha building, pagoda building and nunnery on the site. On Monday, the Racine County Economic Development and Land Use Planning Committee approved the rezoning request, but held over the conditional use, saying they want more information about the site before taking a vote.

Area residents say the plan is just too much for the land to handle. They wanted to see homes that would add to the tax base, more open space and a solid plan to address drainage issues. Some people suggested the project would be better suited to other parts of Caledonia, areas where the neighborhood plans call for religious or institutional developments, not this corner, where they wanted to see homes.

They also wish that the plans had come forward after Caledonia had become a village, which would give Caledonia officials complete control over the decisions, instead of having it split between Racine County and the Town Board. The village will set a date sometime soon for a referendum to decide the town's future. The state budget passed in July included a provision for Caledonia incorporation. Town residents need to approve the municipality becoming a village for the incorporation to take place.

In the back of the hearing room, where residents had to stand, some commented on some of the Buddhist buildings and practices they learned about at the hearing. Someone compared the fellowship hall to a cemetery after learning that remains would be kept there. Someone else said the ornate buildings shown as examples would be better than the run-down greenhouses there now.

Lawrence Zieger, attorney for the group, likened the development to any other large religious site.

"I was raised Catholic," Zieger said. "This would be like a central parish. The temple is like a church, where monks could sleep and pray and be in their contemplative monastic lives. (Major Lao festivals) would approximate the high holy days of the Christian or Jewish faith. They would come together, chat, pray and they celebrate and have a lot of food. What they're looking for is space to do this."

Currently the Buddhist community has smaller worship spaces that accommodate daily services but not the big celebrations that can draw as many as 1,000 people from throughout southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois.

"I don't know what the heck we're doing here," said Michael Sarnowski. "We've got a great big zoning plan that calls for residential, low-density development. Now a couple months later everything is changing. Nothing else changed. The roads are the same, the sanitary sewer is he same. I don't know what changes when these people say I want to buy this and build it and you people have to deal with it."

Sarnowski and others asked for more information about the site plan, including sewage and drainage plans.

"For us not to study the plan and get more input, it would be a terrible disservice to the tax base," said Thomas .

While the zoning passed the committee, it tabled conditional-use approval until more details about the site and its development timetable are made available. Caledonia has yet to hear a presentation on the plan. The Buddhist group is due to appear before their Plan Commission later this month and could appear before the Town Board in September.

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