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Court Won't Hear Appeal

Neighbors of Buddhist Temple Are Pleased with the Supreme Court's Action.

Once again, the Virginia Supreme Court has ruled in Fairfax County's favor regarding Buddhist monk Tranh Van Tran and his home on Bull Run Drive in Centreville.

Last Thursday, Sept. 5, the high court refused to hear his appeal of a Circuit Court ruling forbidding him to use his property as a place of worship without obtaining a county permit.

And once again, Tran's long-suffering neighbors are holding their collective breath that he won't file yet another appeal. Meanwhile, they're cautiously optimistic and pleased with the Supreme Court's action.

"I feel like justice is being done — my faith is restored," said Judy Heisinger, president of the Bull Run Civic Association. "Justice sometimes comes slowly, but at least it comes."

Neighbors say 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 14 years, the Vietnamese Buddhist Association (VBA) ran a temple there. Hundreds of people attended the services and celebrations and were able to find out about this location via a Web site on the Internet.

But the VBA continually denied that it was holding religious observations there and never obtained the county permit required to operate a place of worship in a residential area. Consequently, between 1989-99, the county Zoning Department issued it four violation notices.

Finally, on Oct. 18, 1999, county Zoning Administrator Jane W. Gwinn filed a bill of complaint against Tran in Circuit Court. Judge Kathleen MacKay heard the case on Aug. 10, 2000. 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.

In the end, the judge ordered the VBA to cease operations there. But believing the county's injunction quashed 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 squelch anyone's religious freedom. However, the justices told Circuit Court to reword its injunction more specifically.

It did so and, on March 8, 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."

Tran's attorney Scott Helsel later appealed the judge's ruling to the Supreme Court. On Aug. 28, he told the high court why it should hear this appeal but, on Sept. 5, it declined to do so — thereby upholding the Circuit Court injunction.

Still, Tran may decide to keep fighting; he could ask the Supreme Court to re-hear his petition to appeal. "It's certainly the ninth inning of the ballgame," said Helsel on Tuesday. "But exactly what my client plans to do next, I'm not at liberty to comment on."

Furthermore, he said Tran "certainly intends to abide by the [Circuit] Court's ruling regarding the injunction. He's under a court order not to use his home as a church, chapel or temple, and he doesn't intend to disregard it. He wants to be a good neighbor and hopes he has been. He's done his best to comply with the court's order."

However, Tran and the VBA have also gotten into hot water over another matter. 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 it will be heard Sept. 26 in Circuit Court.

Yet, there's more. On Monday, workmen paved a gravel driveway there into an asphalt one. No grading was involved, but it added more impervious surface. The driveway makes a loop around the house and other structures there and, according to Heisinger, "They had about 100 square feet of tarmac before — now they have about 10,000 square feet."

She said the workmen told her they're going to return and pave in back of the house at a later date. "It means they're not planning to leave — they're here to stay," said Heisinger. "It shows me they're not taking seriously Judge MacKay's decree and that they're planning to appeal again."

But Helsel said that's not the case and he's not sure that any further paving will be done there. "It's not an effort to flaunt the court's order," he explained. "[Tran's] not creating a parking lot so he can surreptitiously use his home as a church. I don't know the exact footage, but he did not enlarge his driveway — he just paved it. He's a homeowner, entitled to do what homeowners there do."