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ZBA Overrules Enforcement Order Against Buddhists



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ZBA Overrules Enforcement Order Against Buddhists

By Andrew Gorosko

The Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) has ruled that there is insufficient evidence to show that religious services were being held at the Cambodian Buddhist Society of Connecticut, Inc’s, 145 Boggs Hill Road property on two separate days last spring.

The ZBA has thus voted against upholding a decision by the town zoning enforcement officer, which had resulted in his issuing a cease and desist order to the Buddhists to halt such “religious services and festivals” at the site.

At an August 28 session, ZBA members deliberated on the society’s May 15 appeal of Zoning Enforcement Officer Gary Frenette’s April 16 order to the Buddhists concerning activities which reportedly occurred at the ten-acre rural property on April 13 and March 22, which were a Sunday and a Saturday, respectively.

Attorney Michael Zizka, who represents the Buddhist society, was not available for comment.

Mr Frenette said this week that if he receives similar complaints from nearby residents in the future about religious services being held at the Buddhist property on weekend days, he would need “rock solid proof” to pursue any enforcement. Mr Frenette said he would need either visual proof of a religious service being held, such a video recording, or need to see it himself in order to pursue enforcement.

Mr Frenette learned of the two spring gatherings at the Buddhist property after they occurred, when nearby residents came to the town land use office on weekdays to complain about the gatherings.

The ZBA’s August 28 decision follows a July 16 public hearing on the society’s ZBA appeal, which charged that Mr Frenette had erred in issuing the cease and desist order because religious services were not held at the site.

In its decision, the ZBA found “There was insufficient evidence to indicate that [the gatherings] were religious services … It is clear that religious services are prohibited in our zoning regulations at the site, but the evidence was insufficient that religious services were being held on those [two] dates.”

Religious services are prohibited at the site because the society does not hold the special permit that the town zoning regulations require for such services. In 2002, the society had sought to obtain such a special permit in order to build a Buddhist temple at the site and hold services, but Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) rejected that application in 2003.

That rejection led to a five-year court battle in which the Buddhist society challenged P&Z’s rejection in both Danbury Superior Court and in the Connecticut Supreme Court, charging that P&Z had violated its religious freedom rights. Both courts upheld the P&Z’s rejection of the Buddhist’s application for a special permit to conduct religious services and to build a temple, explaining that the society’s religious freedom rights were not violated.

Last spring, some residents who live near the Buddhist property complained to Mr Frenette that the Buddhists had held religious services there on two separate days, based on the number of vehicles that were parked on the property on those days. The residents presented photos of vehicles parked at the site as evidence for their complaints that 60 vehicles were parked there on April 13, and that 23 vehicles were parked there on March 22.

At the August 28 ZBA session, ZBA member Alan Clavette observed, “I think this is a tough case … I think it’s difficult to determine that there was an actual religious service going on … Certainly, there were a lot of cars on the property … I don’t think we dispute that at all … The zoning enforcement officer obviously wasn’t there on that particular day. We’d be relying on pictures of cars in a parking lot … so I find it hard to determine that there was a … religious service going on … It’s … a very hard, very hard call.”

ZBA attorney Paul Pollock told ZBA members, “You’re not dealing with whether or not they can have religious services, because they can’t, because they cannot have religious services on that property … So, what I don’t want the [ZBA] to do is to make a decision saying that it’s okay to have religious services, because that would be a violation of the zoning,” Mr Pollock said, according to a transcript of the August 28 session.

The long-contentious issue of the Buddhist society’s use of its Boggs Hill Road property was the subject of a sometimes emotional July 16 public hearing on the society’s appeal of the town order to halt any “religious services and festivals” at the site. Several Buddhist monks live in a house at the property.

In his April 16 order to the society, Mr Frenette told the group to stop such events or face the prospect of court action by the town.

The society maintains that the gatherings on both spring days were not religious services, but were simply cases of society members visiting the several Buddhist monks, who live in the house/monastery on the property, to bring the monks food and gifts.

Through its ZBA appeal, the society sought to have the agency nullify the cease and desist order.

The society’s intensity of use of its property has been an issue for almost a decade, with its past staging of religious festivals there drawing the ire of nearby residents and also resulting in zoning enforcement actions by the town.

Last January, the Connecticut Supreme Court unanimously ruled P&Z was justified in February 2003, when it rejected the Buddhist society’s controversial request for a special zoning permit that would be required to build a proposed 7,600-square-foot Buddhist temple/meeting hall at the property. That Supreme Court decision upheld a November 2005 Danbury Superior Court decision in which a judge upheld P&Z’s rejection of the temple/meeting hall proposal.

In February 2003, P&Z had decided that the temple/meeting hall proposal, which would require a 148-space parking lot to accommodate 450 society members at five major Buddhist festivals annually, is a land use that is too intensive for the site.

P&Z decided that the proposed use of the site was inconsistent with a quiet single-family residential neighborhood with a rural setting, and thus does not meet applicable zoning regulations that require that a land use be in harmony with the general character of a neighborhood.

Nearby residents had complained that the intensive use of the site would result in hazardous traffic conditions on the sinuous Boggs Hill Road, and would result in noisy and crowded conditions at the site.

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