By JOE MURCHISON
A Buddhist congregation suffered a setback in its plan of building a temple in South Laurel on Jan. 16 when the Prince George’s County Council sent the plan back to the county Planning Board for reconsideration because of alleged inaccuracies in the application.
“The site plan is erroneous and filled with errors,” said Stan Brown, people’s zoning counsel, near the end of a 1-1/2-hour hearing. “There are too many issues with this site plan to be approved.” Brown is a county official who participates in zoning and development hearings to represent the general interests of county residents.
The congregation, Giac Son Buddhist Temple, had proposed to build a 4,625-square-foot temple on a 1.6-acre property at Route 197 and Snowden Road. The congregation has worshipped in a house on the property since 2014. The Planning Board approved the plan in September.
An attorney for six neighbors had appealed the ruling to the County Council (called the District Council when it acts on zoning and development issues). The neighbors’ complained that the congregation had caused flooding on their properties from illegally removing trees and a berm, and had disturbed the neighborhood with highly amplified music, drumming and chanting during outdoor festivals.
Brown catalogued a litany of problems he found with the congregation’s application:
- A survey of the property had incorrect boundary lines, not conforming to property dimensions in land deeds and real-state tax records. “It is impossible to determine what the land coverage is,” Brown said.
- The plan did not have a legitimate stormwater plan, despite the neighbors’ complaints about flooding. Brown said a submitted stormwater plan had expired, and a new one had not yet been offered to replace it.
- The congregation had illegally cut down 10,000 square feet of trees on the property, but was being allowed to plant trees elsewhere from its property to meet forestation requirements.
- The plan did not include a floor plan for the interior of the new temple. Brown said this meant the Planning Board had no basis for approving a parking lot of only 43 spaces, which must be based on the number of seats in the worship space. He pointed to previous testimony by a temple representative that attendance during major festivals could be as high as 1,000.
- Brown also noted that the lack of a floor plan made it unclear whether the temple would have a kitchen, even though the congregation had advertised the sale of food — without a required Health Department permit — on social media.
Raj Kumar, principal attorney for the District Council, added that the plan defined the temple as covering less than 5,000 square feet, but that it actually would be more than 5,000. This meant the congregation would need to go through a subdivision approval process, Kumar said, adding more requirements and public hearings.
Staci Scudder, a lawyer for the congregation, said during the hearing that the neighbors’ opposition to the temple plan was mostly hostility “to a particular religion.” Council Chair Jolene Ivey (District 5) responded, “I haven’t heard anything that suggested discrimination.”
Council member Tom Dernoga of Laurel (District 1) asked Scudder if the congregation would accept a condition prohibiting parking in the neighborhood during major events. She replied no. He also asked if the congregation would agree to a condition that no speakers or amplified sound be allowed outside. Scudder deferred the question to congregation members who were present. One of them, Dawn Nguyen, said yes to that condition.
In the end, Dernoga said, “I do not want to deny this application,” but moved that it be sent back to the Planning Board for reconsideration. The other eight council members present unanimously voted their agreement.