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Monks, Riverdale residents spar over property's use

Photo by Hugh Osteen

Photo by Hugh Osteen

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

When driving past 1315 East Fayetteville Road in Riverdale, the observant motorist can catch a glimpse of nearly 30 statues, some big and some small, dotting the highly-wooded property.

These statues -- which have sparked the curiosity and ire of some residents -- are part of a home considered sacred ground to the local Vietnamese Buddhist community.

Since 2006, Thang Ho, a Buddhist monk and head of the non-profit Tu Vien Truc Lam Buddhist Central, Inc., has brought in the statues, arranging them in a garden representing the life of Buddha -- from his birth by Queen Maya, to his lessons taught on earth, to his entrance into parinirvana upon his death.

Ho, a Vietnam native, known as Thich Tam Hien in the Buddhist community, has studied in temples since the age of eight, and established himself as a Buddhist spiritual leader in Europe and Los Angeles, Calif., prior to coming to Riverdale, he said.

In the past three years, he has established the house at 1315 East Fayetteville as a Buddhist learning center. Tucked away in a residential neighborhood, the home currently houses six monks, one nun, volumes of books on Buddhist thought, and a meditation garden which serves as a place of respite for Riverdale's small Vietnamese community, Ho said.

"There are over 200 Vietnamese families around here," he said, with the aid of a translator. "When I came over here, I saw that there were a lot of youngsters in the area that needed guidance. Right now, there are not many people to advise the Vietnamese community. That's why I came to Riverdale. My intention was to be here as a resource."

Since moving to Riverdale, Ho has developed a following of 30 to 40 people, who regularly visit the home to meditate and seek spiritual advice. Occasionally, some of those people gather at the home to celebrate personal accomplishments and observe religious festivals, Ho said.

While Ho's efforts have brought comfort to many in the Vietnamese community, several neighboring residents have complained to the county about the activities on the property. Some believe the religious gatherings at the home threaten the peace of the neighborhood, and that the religious statues, some of which are lighted at night, are bringing down property values.

Arleen Ognio and her husband, Clyde, have owned the home next door at 1271 East Fayetteville Road for 22 years. Ognio, whose carport overlooks the meditation garden, said that she and her husband moved to Fayetteville last year, partly due to the religious activity next door.

"One of the reasons [we moved] is the church [Buddhist temple]," Ognio said. "We haven't put the house on the market because we just don't think it will sell. When you walk out our carport door, you see those 25 statues. It's not a comforting situation. We try to keep the property looking nice. To them, that might be beautiful, but it isn't to me."

According to Clayton County Planning and Zoning Administrator Kc Krzic, Ho and other monks unsuccessfully applied to the Clayton County Zoning Advisory Group on Feb. 22, 2007 for a conditional-use permit to operate the home at 1315 East Fayetteville as a church. On July 10, 2007, the county's code enforcement department fined Ho $500 for hosting religious gatherings in a home zoned as single-family residential.

The fine was later reduced to $250 and paid on Sept. 4, 2007, Krzic said.

Despite the conditional-use permit denial and the fine, Ho successfully obtained a $274.40 building permit, a $59.85 electrical permit, and a $59.85 mechanical permit from the county on Nov. 27, 2007. According to Krzic, the permits were used to build a sun room onto the house and to make other improvements.

Ho said the monks have tried to be mindful of their neighbors. In December 2006 and April 2007, the monks purchased a number of small evergreen trees to line the property and obscure the view of the home and the meditation garden from East Fayetteville Road.

Those efforts have not been enough to satisfy some neighbors, however.

On Tuesday, Ho and nearly 30 supporters of Tu Vien Truc Lam Buddhist Central, made a second appeal, this time to the Clayton County Board of Commissioners, for a conditional-use permit to function legally as a church. At the meeting, several neighbors came to voice their disapproval.

Gisela Mann, pastor of Cup of Water Ministries, a Messianic Jewish congregation on Church Street in Riverdale, was one of a handful of neighbors to voice opposition to the monks' zoning petition on Tuesday. Mann, who owns a home on Collier Road, believes the temple is bad for the neighborhood.

"I opposed it from the beginning," Mann said. "I don't have a problem of who they are. I have a problem of where they want to locate. If you go there at night, it looks like a cemetery there. The lights are on at night and it's eerie. It's the eeriest thing that you can ever see. Some of [the statues] are over seven-feet tall. You can't do that to the people who have worked all of their lives to buy a home, keep it, and then, you put in something like that."

The BOC denied the monks' petition for a conditional-use permit on Tuesday, citing concerns about traffic and additional stress put on the home's septic tank.

Some supporters of Ho and the temple believe the county is discriminating against the Vietnamese community and prohibiting their right to worship freely. Luy Dang, a Vietnamese resident of Riverdale, voiced his opinion to the board on Tuesday.

"[For] people to [say] the religious statues ... look like a cemetery, that is clearly discrimination," Dang said. "In Clayton County, we have too many churches. You are lucky [to be able to] choose one. But Buddhist temple[s], we don't have any. We found one and we are here tonight, begging you tonight for a place to worship. You need a place to worship and we need a place, too."

Krzic said the county does not have a specific ordinance regulating statues and that the regulation of statues would fall under the county's sign ordinance. She said the county would not force the monks to remove the statues from their yard, as long as the statues are not "obscene" and remain under 10-feet tall.

However, Krzic said the home could potentially be fined again if it continues to serve as a religious center. "Traditionally [religious centers are denied from operating in single-family residential neighborhoods] because you do have more traffic," Krzic said. "It doesn't function like a single-family home ... You might have people there at different times at different events, [with] additional demands on the water and sewers. It is something that goes beyond a single-family home need.

"It is the fact that they are a public place of assembly," that violates zoning ordinances, Krzic added. "It doesn't matter if there is one or 1,000. They would be permitted outright in an office-institutional zoning district."

Mechelle Davis, a yoga studio owner and a resident who lives nearby in College Park, befriended the monks more than a year ago. Since meeting them, she has brought her students by to meditate and practice tai chi.

Davis believes the monks are a positive addition to the neighborhood and should be given a chance to get on good terms with the county. "I'm always on that road and I happened to notice it and said, 'That is pretty cool,'" Davis said. "I saw the statues and knew what their significance was. My mind told me there were monks in this house and I wanted to meet them. The one thing that was in common was that I came in peace and [the monks] came in peace.

"They are not trying to expand this to the size of the Hindu temple in Riverdale," she continued. "They are just trying to worship the way they do there, and they should have that right. I personally know they are good and kind people. I can't think of anything else I would want [in the neighborhood] other than churches, mosques, and temples, that is sacred ground -- rather than liquor stores."

Ognio said she believes residents on the street don't want a temple in their backyard and believes the temple should follow the laws and regulations of the county. "It wouldn't matter if it was a Baptist church," Ognio said. "They need to abide by our laws, whatever they are, and they don't seem to do that."

Ho said Tu Vien Truc Lam Buddhist Central would like to do more outreach in the community. He said that while the monks will stand their ground and reapply for a conditional-use permit in another six months, he hopes the neighbors and the county will come around.

"Even though we got denied, we are going to stay, because it's our home," he said. "If people want to come and visit, they have a right to do so. We want the neighborhood and the county to slowly understand us and why we are here. I have nothing but compassion and love for them ... In time, we will change their view."