Zoning Board to Thai Temple: Keep the Noise Down

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Wednesday March 25, 2009 - 06:48:00 PM

The Zoning Adjustments Board is asking Berkeley’s Thai temple to keep the noise down. 

At its March 12 meeting, the zoning board voted 6-3 to formally approve a Buddhist shrine and year-round Sunday food service at Wat Mongkolratanaram, but imposed a number of conditions on its use permit to ensure that the neighborhood is not negatively affected by traffic, litter and noise. The board had previously put pressure on the temple to reduce its weekend brunch hours and the number of visitors it attracts. 

Neighbors had complained at previous board meetings that the temple’s outdoor food fairs at 1911 Russell St. were interfering with their quality of life, prompting zoning officials to investigate the temple’s original use permit, which restricted festivities to just three times a year. 

Zoning Board Member Bob Allen, who voted with the minority, said at the meeting that he had come across huge crowds, amplified music and snarled traffic during a recent Sunday afternoon visit to the temple, which he said had been hosting a funeral service at the time. 

“The place was jam-packed at 3 p.m. and had a worse crowd than the food service,” he said. “We are allowing them to build a new temple but are not setting any standards about what kind of public functions may or may not take place there. We have bowed enough to the temple’s wishes ... If you lived right across from it, you couldn’t sit inside your house and do anything without headphones on.” 

Board Member Jesse Anthony argued that, although adhering to the law was important, the board had to be careful about imposing restrictions that could endanger the temple’s existence. 

“I have lived 74 years and I have never heard of a church, when they have a funeral, deciding how many people can attend the funeral,” he said. “I don’t think we need to go that far. It might be some noise sometime, but people can give up a few hours for people who want to visit a shrine.” 

Allen pointed out that the new use permit states that the project would not be detrimental to the peace of the neighborhood. 

“Most funeral services are indoors, and PA systems are indoors, and it doesn’t have any impact on the neighborhood,” Allen said. “Here we are bringing hundreds of people into the neighborhood—how can that not be detrimental to the peace of the neighborhood?” 

Greg Powell, the city’s senior planner for the project, told the board that the temple’s original 1993 use permit prohibited the use of amplified speakers during festivities. The original permit specifically said that the temple would be “responsible for assuring that the noise generated by services and celebrations on site do not exceed decibel levels set by the City of Berkeley’s noise ordinance.” 

“This has been incorporated into the new application,” Powell said, and could be used for future enforcement. 

Board Member Michael Alvarez-Cohen, citing the temple’s history of violating its food-service permit, asked the city’s Planning Department staff whether it was possible to find out whether the temple’s use of amplified sound was out of compliance with the standards set by the city with respect to religious practices. 

Steve Ross, the city’s principal planner, said Berkeley allows amplified sound only seven times a year with a special use permit. 

“We would have a hard time regulating religious practices, but as for whether it’s a detriment to the surrounding property, we can look at that impact,” Ross said. 

The board approved a motion directing planning staff to send a letter informing the Thai temple about amplification limits in the city by drawing attention to the conditions outlined in the original use permit. 

The letter will also ask the temple to post signs on Martin Luther King Jr. Way informing visitors that parking is available in a lot near the Berkeley Bowl market, so that drivers don’t block neighbors’ driveways.