Rural monks, neighbors clash over proposal
Seattle Times staff reporter
Nobody, it seems, wants to fight with Buddhist monks.
But some neighbors of the Atammayatarama Buddhist Monastery near Woodinville say they have no choice. They insist that the monks' plans to build a meditation center large enough to host up to 250 people would ruin their rural neighborhood by tangling traffic, destroying the surrounding wetlands and sending their property values plummeting.
"The monks are nice people. Talking with them, it's like having a conversation with Gandhi — you feel like you have to yield to them," said Suzanne DeLyle, who owns the neighboring Topline Equestrian Centre. "But this monastery is not right for this community."
DeLyle and a group of neighbors have hired an attorney to help them fight the monks' plans. They hope to flood the King County Department of Development and Environmental Services with letters detailing project problems before Monday, the end of the public-comment period. County planners will then respond to the public's comments before deciding whether to issue the monks a conditional-use permit.
Santidhammo Bhikkhu, an American Buddhist monk who's been a member of the monastery for about three years, says neighbors need to understand that those occasions happen only a few times a year.
"They're reacting to fears that are unfounded," Bhikkhu said. "We did environmental-impact studies that show we won't have a harmful impact."
Bhikkhu and the others are traditional Thai forest monks who prefer to live in quiet rural areas where they can meditate without urban distractions. They follow the Theravada school of Buddhism, which emphasizes ethical conduct, meditation and wisdom. The monks rented a house in Seattle's Beacon Hill neighborhood until 3-1/2 years ago, when they found the nearly five-acre plot in unincorporated King County, northeast of Woodinville.
The monks say they wouldn't harm the forest in order to build their 13,300-square-foot meditation center, which would include four guest rooms, two meditation rooms, a kitchen, offices and a temple.
The monks hosted a barbecue and open house on Saturday at the monastery, which is on 176th Avenue Northeast, just south of the King-Snohomish county border. They invited neighbors and Buddhists to review project plans and eat pad thai, hot dogs, hamburgers and grilled chicken.
Ritthi Thirajitto, the abbot of the monastery, believes daily life will change very little if the center is built. Sitting cross-legged on his favorite meditation bench outside the monastery, he says he likes the area because "it's very quiet." And he says the meditation center wouldn't change that.
Like DeLyle, neighbors Dale and Lisa Schumacher disagree. The Schumachers, who live around the corner from the monastery, say the Buddhists are quiet when they're meditating, but not when they have large gatherings.
"The monks are nice people. But they have meetings, they chant, they speak in very loud Thai," Dale Schumacher said.
Still, neighbors say the main issue is traffic. They don't think 176th Avenue Northeast, a narrow, single-lane road with no centerline, can handle the cars the center would bring. They say children walking to nearby schools, people riding horseback along the roads and local drivers would all be at risk from increased traffic.
But several local religious leaders and residents have written to the county in support of the monks.
This isn't the first time churches being built in rural areas have inspired controversy. In early 2001, the Metropolitan King County Council placed a moratorium on new churches and private schools in rural areas during a battle over proposed size limits. The moratorium was lifted about two years ago.
Sherie Sabour, the King County project planner reviewing the Atammayatarama meditation-center plans, says it's not a violation for Buddhists or any other church to build in an area zoned for rural-residential use.
County officials have asked for more information about drainage plans and have told the monks they need to update their traffic plans, according to planning supervisor Greg Borba.
The last very public battle over a church being built in a rural area was in 2001, when a Christian congregation wanted to build an 80,000-square-foot complex east of Redmond. County officials trimmed it to about 48,500 square feet, about the size of a football field.
Buddhist centers throughout the country have been increasing recently. In an article titled "The Dharma Has Come West," renowned Buddhism scholar Martin Baumann estimated that in the mid-1990s, 3 million to 4 million Buddhists were living in the United States. And the Pluralism Project at Harvard University lists more than 1,800 Buddhist centers in the U.S. in its online directory.
"There's several of the Buddhist monasteries coming in," DeLyle said. "They say, 'We are not here to harm,' they do this little bow, and they're very, very convincing."
She says she has nothing against the monks. Holding her toy fox terrier on her lap, DeLyle suggested the monks show consideration to their neighbors — and move to a nearby large plot of land on a major road, one with multiple lanes and stoplights.
Neighbor Peter Hickey, a real-estate agent who owns the nearby Lucky Spud Ranch, says he enjoys the monks "in their present capacity." But he believes the meditation center, if built, will dramatically lower the property value of his home and sheep-raising ranch, as well as all of the properties on their quiet street.
He said he's been showing properties near a large Buddhist center in Redmond, and buyers are wary of traffic issues.
Scott Missall, the attorney hired by the neighbors, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Santidhammo Bhikkhu says the center wouldn't have a drastic effect on the nearby wetlands or the community. If anything, he hopes it will help Woodinville neighbors better understand Buddhism.
"We just tell people how to live without suffering," he said. "We can't go out and preach. We can't try to convert people. It's against our religion."
Mary Spicuzza: 206-464-3192 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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