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Buddhist complex attains go-ahead from supervisors

October 1, 2008

From The Modesto Bee
By Tim Moran

The Wat Cambodian Church got a green light from the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to build a temple complex on Grimes Avenue west of Modesto, overturning a county Planning Commission decision.

The decision came after a three-hour debate from a standing-room-only crowd in the basement chamber at 1010 10th St.

On Aug. 21, planning commissioners turned down the proposed complex on an 11.68-acre parcel at 1538 Grimes Ave. after neighbors raised objections about traffic and potential conflicts with farming in the area.

Those neighbors raised the same objections Tuesday, but a large contingent of project supporters argued that the Cambodian Buddhist community is an asset to the area and won’t cause problems.

Wat Cambodian Church officials made several concessions to neighbors’ objections, including reducing the number of buildings on the property and the height of a spire on a meditation hall.

Supervisors voted 4-0 to reverse the Planning Commission, with board Chairman Tom Mayfield absent. They added a requirement that the church project put in landscaping along the Modesto Irrigation District canal on the north side of the property to screen it from farming activity.

Don Calkins, who farms the land to the north, was one of the objectors Tuesday. A school building is included in the complex, he noted, which could restrict his spraying. “I already have trouble farming,” Calkins said. “I will have a school right across the canal. I find that to be a threat.”

Others said Grimes is a narrow road with flooding problems, and drivers use it as a shortcut between Highway 132 and Carpenter Road. More traffic would make problems worse, they said.

Armando Flores, an attorney who lives a half-mile north of the property, said the Buddhist festivals that occur twice a year bring several thousand people over several days. He suggested that there are other, more suitable properties nearby.

Opponents reject intolerance claims

Some who spoke in favor of the project suggested that the opposition was driven by racism and religious intolerance, but several opponents said that was not the case.

“This is not about the Buddhist church,” said neighbor Diana Ringer. “It’s about appropriate land use. This is putting a city island in a county area. There will be inevitable conflicts between farming and nonfarming uses.”

Representatives from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter and other west Modesto activists spoke in favor of the church project.

“The Cambodian community has been a mainstay of our county for generations,” activist John Ervin said. “This is not an ‘us versus them’ situation.” Ervin said the festivals he has seen drew hundreds, not thousands, of participants.

Another Grimes Avenue neighbor, Susan K. Jones, said she met the Buddhists when they arrived in the neighborhood and came away impressed.

“They are among the most gracious, giving, loving people I’ve met in a long time,” she said. “They only want to be good Americans and citizens of Modesto.”

Supervisor Jeff Grover asked Public Works Director Matt Machado to look into whether stop signs could be installed at Grimes and California Avenue, and to look at flooding on Grimes.

Machado said the road is on the county’s maintenance list and eventually will be repaved, which would include drainage work.

Supervisor Jim DeMartini said most of the surrounding area is small ranchettes, not production agriculture.

Met requirements or went beyond

Supervisors noted that the Buddhists had met all of the requirements for the use permit and had gone beyond the requirements in some areas. The property is in an urban transition area that is part of Modesto’s sphere of influence, and the city has no objection to it, Supervisor Bill O’Brien said.

County Counsel John Doering told the supervisors that a relatively new federal law requires that governments not put a “substantial burden” on the practice of religion. The supervisors would have to find “a compelling government interest” to deny the use permit, Doering said.

“I think we would be on very thin ice denying their right to build a church,” DeMartini said.

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