Updated: Planning Commission recommends permit denial for group hoping to turn acreage into worship space
The constitutional guarantee of the free exercise of religion and the First Amendment were discussed during the meeting, along with safety and environmental issues specific to the site.
WORTHINGTON — A local group hoping to turn a Bigelow Township acreage into a place to worship together may need to find a new location, after the Nobles County Planning Commission voted 6-3 Wednesday to recommend denying them a conditional use permit.
The final decision will be made by the Nobles County Board of Commissioners at its next meeting, which is scheduled for 9 a.m. Tuesday at the Nobles County Government Center.
About 35 or 40 families belong to the nonprofit Sirimingalar Dhamma Center, and most are part of the Karen ethnic group, which has been the target of ethnic cleansing and violence in their country of origin, Burma.
The Center has a purchase agreement with James and Tracy Potter to buy a 5.39-acre homestead at 31161 Quine Ave., Worthington — an agreement contingent on approval of the conditional use permit.
They had hoped to house a monk in the existing house on the property and host gatherings for worship and cultural events there, with the hope of eventually building a temple on site.
Currently, the closest temple that can fulfill their needs is about three hours away, as other Buddhist temples nearby aren’t from the same cultural background and their members don’t speak the same language.
“It is essential that we have a temple and Buddhist monk,” said Min Zaw, president of Sirimingalar Dhamma Center.
Su Su Pyo, who also spoke on behalf of the Center, explained that the group has had to invite monks to visit from other states, and that causes scheduling difficulties. Monks are required for many life events, she said, giving a blessing after a birth, at a marriage, when a home is purchased and at “every stage of life.”
“We can just not (say) ‘Hey, can you lead the service for today,’” Pyo said, explaining the Center’s need for a monk as well as a worship location.
Sean Naing, the Center’s secretary, said the group planned to host regular services twice a month on weekends, and would have larger events for major celebrations such as New Year’s and Christmas at least twice a year. He hoped that new members from nearby counties such as Cottonwood would join in the future.
Money for the purchase would come from donations, as there are no monthly membership costs, he said, adding that the Center having a home could benefit “not just Buddhist members, but the whole community.”
Following the Center’s presentation, Kathy Henderschiedt, planning and zoning administrator for Nobles County, said her office had received comments from the public regarding the Center’s request.
All were against granting the conditional use permit.
“It is a poor location being on a loose gravel township road which are considered one-lane roads, which could cause accidents,” said John Moberg, pointing out that the roads have poor visibility and adding that should the permit be granted, “the township, school district and county would lose tax revenue forever.”
Another email from Jonathan Mahlberg simply stated their “disapproval of the sale happening,” and a third email that was signed by Mike Bousema, Steve Bousema, Galen and Colleen Gordon, Bill Gordon and Joel Lorenz expressed concern about the increased traffic because the worshippers might not be familiar with farm equipment or the etiquette requiring drivers to pull over to allow large equipment to pass on a narrow road.
Kia and Aaron Nystrom sent a 15-page document listing concerns about safety, preserving the economic viability of agriculture, promoting orderly development, traffic, congestion, parking space and septic systems, the “good neighbor policy,” potential objections to odor due to manure application and the Nystroms’ existing livestock operation and potential expansions.
“In closing we welcome the applicant to become a residential neighbor, to live in the acreage as it was intended, as a single use home,” the Nystroms wrote.
The Nystroms also spoke against granting the conditional use permit during the meeting, as did several others.
The acreage’s septic system was a significant topic of discussion, as Nobles County regulations had required a former owner of the property to update it within a year of purchase but it was never done.
Sirimingalar Dhamma Center representatives indicated they would be responsible for putting in a new system that would comply with regulations.
After discussion, it was determined that while one up-to-date septic system would be adequate for a monk living in the residence on the acreage, it would not be enough to support the planned gatherings, so most likely a second septic system would need to be placed on the property.
Bob Demuth Jr., a Planning Commission member and Nobles County commissioner, recalled that the Lao temple north of Worthington had to enlarge its septic system but also brought in portable toilets for large gatherings.
The First Amendment
During the meeting, Nobles County Attorney Joe Sanow stated the Planning Commission’s analysis of the case had to be different than that of a typical conditional use permit case.
“Because here, we are directly implicating the Constitutional guarantee of the free exercise of religion and the First Amendment,” Sanow said, explaining the requirements of the law. “The simple way to say this is that in this case, the rule is flipped. Normally, when an applicant requests a conditional use permit, they would have the burden of showing that … it’s appropriate, it’s acceptable.
"Here, because we do have a First Amendment exercise of religion issue, the burden is reversed," Sanow continued. “The burden would be on us as a government entity to show that forcing this proposed temple to comply with land use regulations, first, does not impose a substantial burden on their ability to exercise their religion, or if it does, that we the government have a substantial compelling interest, and that the restrictions that we require are the least restrictive means to satisfy that interest."
Some extra time or extra cost to the county would not be enough to qualify as a “substantial” compelling interest, he added, and the Planning Commission would need to “make some detailed findings” about what “substantial government interest you’re looking out for” if it denied the permit entirely.
Sanow also noted that the Planning Commission could not treat religious applicants differently than other applicants, so that if a similar property had its permit granted and this one did not, the Commission would need to distinguish why.
“I’m a person of faith, I understand,” said Dave Vander Kooi, a member of the Planning Commission. “... we need to work together and find a better place for you than this place.”
Pyo said the Center had tried, but that the market was extremely tight. Any time they thought they found a good place for worship, it sold before they could get it.
The Planning Commission suggested that if Center representatives wished, they could give the Commission time to delay its decision — perhaps giving them time to gather information or find solutions to some of the issues brought up during the meeting — but Naing said that would be impossible as the sellers would not wait for them.
A motion was made and seconded to deny the conditional use permit, and Sanow asked, for the record, what the main reason for the denial was.
“Ag preservation district, No. 1; No. 2, close livestock facilities; No. 3, poor township roads; No. 4, bad and dangerous intersection; No. 5, cannot build a fence between grain bins and the site,” Vander Kooi detailed, noting that a child would simply run around the fence straight into the road.
“I think more importantly, we just don’t have enough information on the septic system,” said Marv Zylstra, another member of the Planning Commission.
“I’m hearing predominantly safety,” said Dave Thier, chairman of the Commission.
John Penning, also a member of the Planning Commission, said he was concerned about the lack of a detailed plan about parking and septic systems.
The Commission voted 6-3 to recommend the Nobles County Board deny the permit. Voting in favor of this motion were Vander Kooi, Thier, Penning, Zylstra, Marty Rickers and Richard Schlichte. Opposed were Demuth, Jay Clarke and Larry Boots. One planning commission member, Brent Fiekema, was not present.
Two people on the Planning Commission had ideas for alternative sites for the Sirimingalar Dhamma Center and expressed hope that they could speak with its representatives at some point following the meeting.