A report from city officials says the Berkeley Thai Temple repeatedly violated its zoning permit by selling food to the public during religious events on Sundays.
Just how long the temple has been out of compliance with the permit, which was issued in 1993, no one was able to say at the Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) meeting last week, but zoning commissioners agreed to give the monks at the 33-year-old Buddhist institution a chance to modify the current permit and address neighborhood concerns.
Since the temple’s current use permit requires food sales events not to exceed a total of six times annually, the temple might have already violated the limit 20 times this year alone, one of the commissioners said.
The temple approached the zoning board for a use permit to build a new Buddhist shrine in April. At that meeting, some South Berkeley neighbors charged Wat Mangolakaratanam, as the temple is officially called, with running a commercial restaurant in a residential neighborhood, bringing trash, noise and traffic to their streets.
Although some zoning board members were in favor of revoking the temple’s permit in face of what they called blatant disregard for the law, others pressed for mediation between the temple and its neighbors on the grounds that the monks provided an important service to the community.
The board voted unanimously to postpone the hearing until Sept. 25, providing zoning staff with time to investigate the charges and the mediators with an opportunity to meet twice.
Bob Allen, zoning vice chair, was the first to criticize the violations.
“I am stunned by the record and that the applicant hadn’t adhered to the use permits since 1993,” Allen said. “I am stunned it has gone to this point. I am aware Sunday brunch is popular, but we can’t close our eyes and let this go by.”
Allen quoted from the staff report, which says zoning officials met with the temple’s representatives to review the existing approvals, and that they believed the applicant would come back with a modified use permit application to adapt the Sunday activities that will address all the neighborhood concerns.
“First, I think to send neighbors to mediate where they are supposed to negotiate on what has happened instead of what the use permit is, is putting neighbors at a disadvantage,” Allen said. “Neighbors don’t negotiate changes in use permit, it’s our (ZAB’s) job.”
Allen added that the temple agreed to discontinue the sale of food in 1993, in response to complaints from neighbors about outdoor barbecues at that time.
“They ought to be ashamed of this phony baloney thing of accepting donations for food,” Allen said, referring to the tokens that the temple sells to be used instead of money to pay for food cooked every Sunday after religious events. “How dumb do they think we are? It’s really untenable.”
ZAB chair Rick Judd said enforcement procedures would take a long time but added the board didn’t want to give the temple the impression the project would sail through with minor modifications.
“To me, its a real conundrum,” said ZAB commissioner Terry Doran. “How do we deal with the fact that it’s an organization with an ongoing function that has served the community illegally since 1997, and we are being asked to legalize it? The neighbors needs to be heard and weigh in at some point, but I expect the city to have more involvement.”
Responding to ZAB commissioner Jesse Arreguin’s request for information on the city’s code-enforcement history for the temple’s activities, Greg Powell, the planner assigned to the project by the city, said the lack of formal complaints from neighbors had not resulted in information.
“But neighbors were informed of the limits on the use permit at the first mediation session, and they know it’s well beyond that at this point.”
ZAB commissioner Michael Alvarez Cohen said he had enjoyed eating at the Thai temple on a recent visit but found it overcrowded.
“The issue is cut and dry,” he said. “This organization is breaking the law, and staff and police should go and stop it. Otherwise what is the law for? We shouldn’t adjudicate any other permit unless they follow the law.”
Commissioner Sara Shumer and Arreguin pressed for mediation, and Allen asked staff for reports from the city’s building, health and fire departments to investigate whether the current activities met proper city standards.
“We haven’t caught these peoples’ attention for the last 13 years,” Allen said. “A club over their head is what it will take to get it.”