By JOE MURCHISON
A Vietnamese Buddhist congregation is planning to build a temple in South Laurel, but they have run into stiff opposition from their neighbors.
The congregation, Giac Son Buddhist Temple, currently worships at a house that a congregation member purchased for it in 2014 on Route 197 just south of Snowden Road.
In September, the Prince George’s County Planning Board approved the congregation’s plans to construct a 4,625-square-foot temple next to the house on the 1.6-acre property. Also approved was a 28-foot statue of Quan Am, a Buddhist goddess of compassion. The statue will be placed with other smaller statues in a courtyard between the house and the planned temple.
However, six neighbors have hired a lawyer and have appealed the approvals. The Prince George’s County District Council (the name of the county council when it hears zoning cases) is scheduled to hear the appeal on Jan. 16.
The 46-page appeal argues that the congregation submitted a site plan with incorrect boundaries and insufficient setback distances from the property lines, and that the planning board did not require sufficient parking nor a proper tree conservation plan to compensate for more than 10,000 square feet of trees illegally cut down to create a large gravel parking lot. Finally, the appeal says temple activities have created a public nuisance in the neighborhood.
In interviews, neighbors described flooding of their homes from rainwater running downhill from the deforested property; they said the flooding issues started when the congregation began to cut down trees. Neighbors also complained about highly amplified sound during outdoor festivals.
“They have held multiple events with loudspeakers, karaoke-style singing and drums,” said Paula Price, who lives several houses down Snowden Road from the temple.
The noise, which includes chanting, has occurred as often as every couple of weeks in warm months and is “ear-splittingly loud,” according to Cathy Williams, who lives four houses down.
“From 8 in the morning till 9 or 10 at night,” added Cathy’s husband, Clyde.
Cathy Williams said they also have experienced house damage from flooding and trees dying from saturated soil. They had French drains installed at a cost of $14,000 but now are worried about foundation cracks appearing around most of the bottom of the house.
Leah Washington-Johnson, whose lot adjoins the temple property, said the number of events declined significantly last summer. But she said water running downhill has washed out a wall of a stairwell to her basement, requiring replacement and drainage measures costing $27,000. “We’ve flooded so many times … we had to replace the sump pumps at least three times. … I can’t use my basement.”
Washington-Johnson also noted that the Buddhist congregation had placed a 15-foot Buddha statue just over its property line in her yard, which the temple’s lawyer, Traci Scudder, acknowledged to the planning board during a September hearing. “That statue will be relocated off that neighboring property,” she said. “We will mitigate the gravel that has formed over the years in that location.”
Gabrielle Masten, who lives three houses from the temple property, said her basement also has flooded, with water washing in the windows. She has had to spend $50,000 on repairs, she said, including replacing flooring, repairing walls, dealing with mold and replacing ruined belongings. She said she also had to have the driveway repaved due to damage caused by erosion.
Clyde Williams said, “We have nothing against the people. … We extended an open hand. We want to be treated like neighbors. They treat us with disrespect — ‘it’s your problem.’ “
Cathy Williams said she and other homeowners have called numerous county agencies to complain about problems, and county officials have responded at times with directives for the temple to lower its noise and stop its tree-cutting, but the issues kept recurring. After a while, “it seemed like no one cared,” she said.
The Laurel Independent sent an email to the Prince George’s County Department of Permits, Inspections and Enforcement seeking information about complaints the department had received about the temple and enforcement actions it had taken. As of press time, the paper had not received a response.
Master Thích Chúc Dai, also known as Quoc Vy Do), the temple’s spiritual leader and one of four monks serving there, said the problem for all the properties was rainwater washing off Route 197.
Vy Do said both stormwater and noise issues would abate with construction of the new temple. He said the plans call for new drainage measures around the parking lot. He also said that some of the outdoor events would be moved inside when they have the new, larger temple space, reducing sounds heard by neighbors.
Vy Do said the congregation, which has 100 to 200 members, is one of about nine Vietnamese temples in the Baltimore-Washington area.
He confirmed that the congregation celebrates three major festivals: a Compassion Festival around the time of cherry trees blossoming, Buddha’s birthday in May, and Parent Day, during which Buddha’s father and mother are celebrated and teachings focus on maintaining good family relationships. These festivals draw significantly larger crowds than normally attend the weekly meetings, he said.
Member Danny Nguyen said the temple wants to be a good neighbor, adding that the congregation plans to have a food pantry and do coat drives for school children. “We welcome everyone,” he said.
But at the September hearing, planning board member William Doerner addressed the temple’s lawyer. “Ms. Scudder, It doesn’t reflect very well on your applicant. They’re not being a good neighbor. … Just personally, I would think that a religious institution or group would be a little bit more welcoming, neighborly,” he said.
County planners who reviewed the site plan suggested that the Quan Am statue should be limited to 15 feet instead of 28 feet. But planning board members approved the greater height after Scudder warned them that denying it could be an impingement on the temple’s religious freedoms.
Scudder specifically mentioned two cases in which federal courts ruled in favor of county religious congregations after the district council had denied their right to sewer service. One of those cases was in Laurel, in which a federal appellate court ruled in 2008 that the county was guilty of religious discrimination by refusing to allow Reaching Hearts International Seventh-day Adventist Church to build on property on Brooklyn Bridge Road. The court ordered the county to pay $3.7 million in damages. Reaching Hearts was built and opened for worship in 2017.