Attorney John Lawler stopped short of saying his client had a civil rights claim, but added that they would “consider options” Thursday in response to the Planning Commission’s denial of planning approval for a meditation center at 2354 and 2410 Eloong Drive.
“Religious organizations … are protected by civil rights law,” he said, following the unanimous decision. “I don’t know if we’ll use that.”
The application, made by property owner Lar Nimityongski, would’ve allowed for the addition of a meditation center, one cottage, parking spaces and restrooms to the site already containing a house. Nimityongski has previously said the center would include classrooms to allow visiting Buddhist monks and others “from all walks of life” to provide meditation sessions. Lawler told commissioners the facility would be part of a larger international network that would also allow monks in Thailand to teach remotely.
Lawler said he doesn’t know if the final decision, or the opposition of a number of neighbors was based on religion, but questioned if a similar request from a local church group would’ve endured as much scrutiny.
“A lot of this was based on that it’s something unknown,” Lawler said. “People are fearful of things they don’t know.”
Lawler described having meetings with neighbors and interacting with “hysterical” opponents. Nearby Riverside Drive resident and attorney Tamala Eshem said while there had been comments made by people who are not neighbors to try and bring up the religious issues, none of the neighbors had objections due to the religious aspects of the center.
“That’s absolutely incorrect,” she said. “Our opposition has never had anything to do with religion.”
Instead, she said the opposition is the construction of 6,000 to 7,000 square feet of buildings and a parking lot in a neighboring property. Eshem and other residents also complained of traffic complications caused from visitors to the center using a very narrow street in and out.
The commission initially held over a vote, while asking for more evidence the meditation center was religious in nature. It appeared several questions remained Thursday. When asked, Lawler told commissioners the center doesn’t charge and instead takes donations. When asked if the center had a business license, attorney Bill Youngblood said it did because a location on Airport Boulevard was adjacent to the Bangkok restaurant and city staff advised Nimityongski to apply for one, despite the center being a non-profit.
Lawler told commissioners the center should fall under at least one of several exemptions in the zoning ordinance to be allowed in a residential district. Wayne Graham, an attorney for the opposition, argued that the word “church” was used in the ordinance and that the center was not a church. He also argued that even if it were a church it wouldn’t be allowed by right.
Commissioners eventually decided not to focus on the religious question and instead looked at whether the site was appropriate in the neighborhood, before voting to deny it. Commissioner Libba Latham was recused.
Eshem also told commissioners 105 acres of land was donated to Nimityongski for the purpose of locating the meditation center. Lawler said they found that property wasn’t suitable for that purpose.
In other business, the commission held over a vote on new petroleum storage tank regulations until January. This decision follows two well-attended public hearings on the subject and months of meetings with debate on both sides of the issue.
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