Council to decide if Chandler home can be a Buddhist temple

by Edythe Jensen, The Arizona Republic, Aug. 18, 2009

Chandler, AZ (USA) -- A north Chandler house that's been used as a Buddhist temple for three years needs city council approval to continue as a place of worship.

That's because some neighbors near the home at 285 N. Comanche Drive complained about traffic and rows of cars parked on residential streets south west of Alma School Road and Chandler Boulevard every Sunday. A city inquiry that followed found the temple lacked a required use permit. Officials had recently ordered the group to stop hosting Sunday prayer meetings until they obtained a permit and find alternative parking.

The Planning and Zoning Commission will vote Wednesday night whether grant the Vien Minh Buddhist Temple a special use permit, which is recommended for approval by municipal planners. The City Council has the final say later this month. Several neighbors also have written the city in support of the temple, which houses three Buddhist nuns and depends on donations for support.

Even if the permit is granted, the temple will likely have to curtail operations for a while until the house is brought up to city code, according to council memos. Built in 1968, the structure was modified in recent years without building permits. A garage was converted into living quarters, an addition erected over the patio and an outdoor kitchen installed; many of the changes violate city requirements.

Dao Chuan, spokesman for the temple, said the Buddhists are making arrangements with nearby Erie Elementary School for parking, but they must first obtain liability insurance. The worshippers were unaware they needed a permit to host religious gatherings, and the required building modifications will be expensive, he said. "We found the city quite reasonable to deal with, but this is not a rich temple and the modifications will require money and labor," Chuan said.

Although complaints about traffic and parking triggered the permit process, most neighbors are supportive of the temple operations, he said. "They like having the nuns there. They are quiet, diligent and keep the place extremely clean." Religious statues on the front lawn are surrounded by lush landscaping, and the home appears freshly painted.

More than 100 Buddhists signed petitions asking the city to allow Sunday prayer services and vowing not to park on the streets around the temple. Some neighbors sent letters of support to the city. "I see having a temple in the neighborhood a benefit for the community," wrote Crystal Ochoa. "I could not ask for better people to live next to . . . I feel safe in my home with the sisters living next door," said another, Laverne Lindsen.

"As citizens of the USA we feel they have the right to use their home as a religious center," wrote Alyce Wotring and Roxanne Denae.

In her memo to the city council, planner Jodie Novak said 20-30 people typically attend the Sunday worship, but celebrations and special events draw heavier traffic. "Historically, the city has approved churches and places of worship in many residential neighborhood areas, subject to compliance with city codes and development standards," she said. Since there is no live music or administrative offices at the temple site, the key issue is parking, Novak said.