LA PUENTE — Sure, they made some mistakes when they first moved in, spokesmen for the Natural Buddhist Meditation Temple concede.
There were those loud, amplified chimes, blessing the neighborhood every morning at 7. There were the barefoot monks chanting in the streets. There was the odor of incense that wafted into people's kitchens and the offerings--bowls of rice and shrimp placed along the edges of their property.
"You can imagine what they smelled like after a few hot days," says Jack Spahn, the paid spokesman for the group.
It took a few months, but the surrounding community, on unincorporated land south of Bassett, was soon riled up enough to raise a stink with the authorities.
But that was more than two years ago. "As soon as they understood the problems, they immediately discontinued those practices," Spahn contends.
Nevertheless, the Buddhist group now faces eviction from its bucolic five-acre property, after the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission voted in December to reject its application for a conditional use permit to build a garden-like meditation center on the land.
The group's last hope is an appeal to the Board of Supervisors, where Supervisor Pete Schabarum, who represents the area, is already on record as opposing the plan.
"It's inappropriate," said a spokeswoman for Schabarum. "It's in a residential area, in a mid-block location, where there are some traffic concerns and some opposition from neighbors." The board is scheduled to rule on the appeal June 23.
Most From Thailand
The 100-member Buddhist congregation, most of them residents of the San Gabriel Valley who were born in Thailand, struggles to understand the labyrinthine complexities of the county zoning code.
"In Thailand, you don't need a permit to build a temple," says Kun-Ying Chutapa, a soft-spoken woman who serves as both board member and translator for the group. "Buddhism is so important for the Thai people."
Mostly, the Buddhists, who now hold their services in a meeting room in a nearby elementary school, do not understand why three Christian churches have been approved in recent years within a few blocks of their property on Don Julian Road, while their own application has been rejected.
Archan Rien Sandung, the slight, smiling spiritual leader of the group, puzzles over this. "Though he feels that it may be prejudice," says the translator, "it is not his practice to think of people that way. He continues to hope and pray that they change their minds."
The denomination of the group has nothing to do with county deliberations, insisted a spokesman for the Regional Planning Commission. "That's not the issue at all," said John Huttinger, the commission's assistant division chief for zoning administration. "It's a question of the magnitude of the impact on the community."
Here's where county authorities and representatives of the Buddhists sharply disagree. According to the religious group, the plan is to create a tranquil, idyllically low-profile place, complete with streams, waterfalls and flowery bowers, where people can meditate without distractions.
The group has agreed to hold services only between 10:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., with groups as large as 95 only on Sundays.
"People come here because he (Sandung) is a very good teacher," said Chutapa, showing a reporter around the grounds, where the Buddhists have planted trees, cactus and flowers and converted a garage into a small, ornate temple with brass figures of Buddha. "This makes people feel at home. It makes them feel warm."
But the temple has been in operation, the commission noted, for about two years "without the required permit" ("They never understood the law," insisted Spahn), and it serves not just a neighborhood or community but a regional group, extending as far away as Orange County and the western part of Los Angeles County.
Some neighbors, many of whom keep horses on their property, add that the temple grounds have been far from tranquil. "We're constantly aware of activities on the other side of the fence," said Glenn Brown, a tool-and-die maker who lives next to the property.
"They've been on extremely good behavior since the denial (by the commission), but you see them coming and going."
Besides those early-morning neighborhood blessings, Brown and others complained, the Buddhists have filled the neighborhood with kitchen noises and traffic.
"The biggest problem is that they run all their activities outdoors," says Brown, though the Buddhists have agreed to enclose their kitchen. He cites a clamorous visit by a well-known Buddhist leader from Thailand, attracting dozens of cars and hundreds of people.
"They say now they'll limit it to 51 cars," Brown said. "But how the devil can you police them? Are they going to take numbers and line up, like Disneyland?"
Brown, who has lived in the area since he was a teen-ager, worries about the erosion of its rural character. "They're changing what has historically been something else," he said.