ZBA Overrules Enforcement Order Against Buddhists
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, Incâs, 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 âreligious services and festivalsâ at the site.
At an August 28 session, ZBA members deliberated on the societyâs May 15 appeal of Zoning Enforcement Officer Gary Frenetteâs 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 ârock solid proofâ 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 ZBAâs August 28 decision follows a July 16 public hearing on the societyâs 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 âThere was insufficient evidence to indicate that [the gatherings] were religious services â¦ 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.â
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&Zâs 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&Zâs rejection of the Buddhistâs application for a special permit to conduct religious services and to build a temple, explaining that the societyâs 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, âI think this is a tough case â¦ I think itâs difficult to determine that there was an actual religious service going on â¦ Certainly, there were a lot of cars on the property â¦ I donât think we dispute that at all â¦ The zoning enforcement officer obviously wasnât there on that particular day. Weâd be relying on pictures of cars in a parking lot â¦ so I find it hard to determine that there was a â¦ religious service going on â¦ Itâs â¦ a very hard, very hard call.â
ZBA attorney Paul Pollock told ZBA members, âYouâre not dealing with whether or not they can have religious services, because they canât, because they cannot have religious services on that property â¦ So, what I donât want the [ZBA] to do is to make a decision saying that itâs okay to have religious services, because that would be a violation of the zoning,â Mr Pollock said, according to a transcript of the August 28 session.
The long-contentious issue of the Buddhist societyâs use of its Boggs Hill Road property was the subject of a sometimes emotional July 16 public hearing on the societyâs appeal of the town order to halt any âreligious services and festivalsâ 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 societyâs 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 societyâs 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&Zâs 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.