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A Telling Tale of 2 Temples

Religion: Newport Beach neighbors battle over form of Mormon project, while Redlands twin is half completed.

October 07, 2002|WILLIAM LOBDELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a dusty Redlands hillside where tract homes and orange groves meet, the most sacred of Mormon buildings is already half complete. Under the bright sun, workers in hard hats use a crane to guide large, 5-inch-thick granite slabs into place on the temple's exterior.

"It's beyond belief," said Mayor Kasey Haws, himself a Mormon, about watching his church's holiest symbol quickly rise in his town at the base of the San Bernardino Mountains. "I still have trouble absorbing it."

Sixty-five miles away in Newport Beach, officials with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had hoped a second, identical temple--announced the same day last year as the one in Redlands--would have matched the progress of its inland twin.

But 18 months later, the 7-acre site above a canyon on the city's north end remains vacant. Although church leaders say the essence of the temple design is ordained by God and therefore nonnegotiable, construction has been delayed by tenacious residents who live in the surrounding million-dollar homes. Concerned about blocked views, excessive lighting and traffic, and a potential drop in property values, the group of high-powered professionals and others have fought many aspects of the building's original plans, from its 124-foot steeple to its white color scheme.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 08, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 8 inches; 292 words Type of Material: Correction
Temple changes--A graphic in some editions of the California section Monday misstated when the exterior lights must be turned off at the proposed Mormon temple in Newport Beach. No lighting will be allowed from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

On a hunch, one homeowner and part-time sailor even used a sextant to measure the steeple on the Mormon meeting house across the street from the temple site. He discovered that the spire is 68 feet high, or 18 feet shorter than advertised in city documents. Opponents called the discovery significant because church officials had said the temple steeple needed to be 124 feet, in part, to rise above the neighboring spire.

Last week, before an overflow crowd at Newport Beach City Hall, church officials won Planning Commission approval for the temple after unveiling another set of plans that included a reduced, 100-foot steeple. But the issue--and all its controversy--most likely will be appealed by residents or a council member and end up at the City Council in the weeks to come.

The opposing viewpoints--one secular, one religious--have brought a stalemate that's left little ground for compromise. Homeowners say they want to focus on how the 17,500-square-foot building will affect the surrounding residential neighborhood. Their strategy purposely left religion out of the debate. Whether it's a Mormon temple or a Ralphs supermarket is beside the point, they contend. The issue is whether the project fits in the neighborhood.

"We've stuck to the facts," said Steven Brombal, president of the Bonita Canyon Homeowners Assn. "This is a building issue that has nothing to do with religion."

Church leaders, by contrast, say religion is an essential part of the debate. In addition to arguing that the building won't hurt the neighborhood, church leaders say the temple's design has been divinely decreed. Therefore, it's impossible to compromise over neighbors' concerns as is common with other developments.

Unlike Mormon meeting houses where regular Sunday services are held, temples--with their dazzling white interiors and prism-like windows--are believed by church members to be the spiritual bridge between heaven and Earth. The sacred space--only 60 exist in the country, including those under construction--is reserved for life's most significant events, such as baptisms and marriages. Only church members in good standing may enter a temple.

And only the church's president, who also is considered a prophet, can approve a temple's design. Church officials say President Gordon B. Hinckley, 92, twice visited the Newport Beach property on Bonita Canyon Road near MacArthur Boulevard to get a sense of what kind of building was needed. And any city mandate that changes the temple's architecture is seen by the 11-million member church as an infringement on its religious briefs and a contradiction of God's design.

"Although the city may not share the belief that [the church president] has the divine mandate to do this, we trust that you will respect the fact that church members do believe it," wrote Weatherford Clayton, president of the Newport Beach stake, or region, of the church.

This is how the pingpong match in Newport Beach has gone. Mormon officials say their theology dictates a 124-foot steeple in Newport Beach.

A resident digs up a mound of documents that lists Mormon temples worldwide with either no steeples, or spires under 80 feet. The church leaders say divine inspiration is different for each of their 126 temples and for each church president, meaning there's no standard architecture.

Then in late September, Mormon officials say their prophet in Salt Lake City has approved a second temple design for Newport Beach, this one with a smaller steeple and a redesigned, California-mission style building. The plans were publicly unveiled Thursday evening at the Planning Commission meeting.

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