Buddhist Temple to Appeal Judge's Ruling

Buddhist Temple to Appeal Judge's Ruling

Tranh Van Tran is nothing if not determined.

In March, Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Kathleen MacKay ruled that he could no longer allow his Centreville property to be used as a place of worship without obtaining a permit from the county.

But instead of closing down operations and complying with the court's order, he's doing what he did once before — appealing what transpired at county level to the Virginia Supreme Court. And his beleaguered, Bull Run Drive neighbors— at odds with Tran for 14 years now — say they pretty much expected it.

"I'm not surprised," said Judy Heisinger, president of the Bull Run Civic Association. "It was a matter of holding our breath, just wondering when [he'd file an appeal]."

Neighbors said they were originally led to believe that the small, five-room house at 7605 Bull Run Drive was only to be a home for the one or two monks who lived there. Instead, for nearly a decade-and-a-half, the Vietnamese Buddhist Association (VBA) ran a temple there.

Trouble was, it never obtained the county permit required to operate a place of worship in a residential area. As a result, between 1989-99, the county Zoning Department issued the VBA four violation notices.

But nothing ever came of them until Oct. 18, 1999, when county Zoning Administrator Jane W. Gwinn went to Circuit Court and filed a bill of complaint against Tran, a Buddhist monk.

MacKay heard the case on Aug. 10, 2000. At that time, county zoning inspector Sandra Hicks testified that worshipping isn't prohibited anywhere. But, she said, in the residential-conservation district (R-C) — where this property's located — it requires a special permit.

When the case ended, the judge ordered the VBA to cease operations there. But believing the county's injunction stepped on its constitutional rights of due process and free exercise of religion, on Nov. 29, 2000, the VBA filed a petition with the state Supreme Court to appeal MacKay's ruling.

The high court heard the case and, on Nov. 2, 2001, it declared the county's zoning ordinance constitutional and said it didn't prevent anyone's religious freedom.

However, the justices found that Circuit Court's August 2000 injunction against using the property as a "meeting hall or other place of assembly" without a special-use permit went beyond the scope of the county's zoning ordinance. This ordinance authorized certain group activities in the R-C district with such a permit, but using one's property there as a meeting hall or place of assembly — with or without a special-use permit — was not mentioned.

So the justices remanded the injunction back to Circuit Court to be reworded more appropriately, and county attorney Patrick Taves did so. Then, on March 8, Judge MacKay entered a final decree declaring the VBA's use of this property "as a church, chapel, temple or other such place of worship without an approved ... permit is in violation of ... the [county] zoning ordinance."

Residents had also worried that the home's septic system was woefully inadequate for just the monks, let alone all the worshippers, and they feared contamination of their wells. So Tran's neighbors hoped the new decree would force the VBA to finally stop holding meetings and services attended by large numbers of people in cars.

But no such luck. Instead, last Thursday, April 4, Tran's attorney Scott Helsel filed a legal document in Circuit Court indicating Tran's intention to appeal MacKay's ruling to the Supreme Court. Tran has three months from March 8 to do so.

A panel of justices will then determine whether the court will hear the appeal. On Monday, Helsel declined to elaborate on the particular basis for Tran's appeal, but the details will be contained in the actual appeal.

Meanwhile, the Bull Run residents are disappointed that the issue is once again in dispute and will drag on for several more months or longer. "This has been going on for so many years that it feels like it's never going to be over," said Heisinger. "How long can this go on? They continue to appeal, rather than realize their property isn't the place for a temple."

Carolyn Glade, a 30-year Bull Run Drive resident, said the VBA members just "don't want to give up what they're doing. They say they want to be good neighbors, but you can't be good neighbors if you break the law."

Her husband Ed agrees. "They're trying every legal loophole and available trick there is," he said. "They know they're in violation. To me, it's just a slap in the face of everyone involved."

Besides, he said, the property's health/environmental issues, alone, are pretty insurmountable. "Said Glade: Even if they got a permit [to worship there] — with no sewer and water and an inadequate septic system — with repeated large numbers of people coming, it would never pass the health code."

Coincidentally, this ruling is not the only one Tran is appealing. Last summer, the VBA built two large concrete slabs on his property. But since they total 5,000 square feet, the VBA needed to first present a site plan and apply to the county to build them. As a result, the county's Zoning Enforcement Branch issued Tran a citation.

On Jan. 15, the county Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) upheld Zoning's contention that the cement used for the slabs counted as "fill" material and was, therefore, a "land-disturbing activity" requiring an approved grading plan that the temple should have submitted prior to construction. However, Tran appealed this decision, too, and is currently asking Circuit Court to review it.