FREMONT – The co-founder of a Buddhist temple perched in the hills of Fremont threatens to sue the town for religious, gender and racial discrimination, saying city officials are unfairly pushing it to demolish much of the private religious establishment and to use intimidation tactics in a protracted dispute over the application of the code.
Lawyers for MiaoLan Lee, who lives in a house above the temple near Mill Creek Road, said the town was citing security concerns with some of the structures on the property, saying they were not following codes of conduct. the city.
In a 2018 release notice to Lee, the city said some of the buildings were constructed without permits or plans, and were “constructed without adequate structural and foundation systems and present a substantial risk of partial or complete collapse in earthquake case “.
The city also claims there is inadequate ventilation, lighting, sanitation and insulation, among other safety concerns.
Lee’s lawyers are pushing back on the allegations, saying the buildings are sturdy and safe, and insisting that the city is being overzealous in its dealings with Lee’s property. While some neighbors on the road maintain unauthorized structures without catching the city flak, Lee’s attorneys say, the clearance process for his property has been particularly complicated and arduous.
Tal Finney, a land use lawyer for Lee, said Lee and her partner, Tu Nguyen, “have been trying for a decade” to work with the city to clear all structures and have spent “tens of thousands of dollars. dollars to try and do it, ”but have met resistance from the city in recent years.
Bronwen Lacey, a senior assistant city attorney, declined to comment for the story, citing a “potential litigation” and an “ongoing administrative enforcement case.”
The buildings on the property, including an old garage that has been extensively renovated into a temple and a California-style barn that has been renovated into a meditation hall, are ‘safe, sound, structurally sound’ and have adequate ventilation, according to Finney.
Lee and Nguyen have invested “millions and millions of dollars” in transforming the property they bought in 2010, he said.
The 29-acre property and its structures are maintained to “withstand wildfires and earthquakes,” Finney said, despite the city’s claims that three of the buildings, including the temple, lack systems adequate fire resistance and protection.
The temple and meditation hall buildings are now full and surrounded by statues depicting various incarnations of Buddha through the centuries as well as enlightened spiritual leaders of Buddhism.
Some of the statues are massive white works of art carved from single blocks of stone, weighing over 4,000 pounds, while others are small, with dozens lined up on shelves in a main room of the meditation hall .
Others are made of wood and a large bronze Buddha watches over the interior of the temple, surrounded by offerings including boxes of shortbread cookies and pineapple cakes, as well as plants, flowers, candles and vases. .
There are also statues and works of art depicting central figures from other religions, including Christianity and Hinduism, as well as a Hindu shrine pagoda next to a suspended walkway.
“It’s a cultural work of art,” Finney said.
Finney said that Lee and Nguyen successfully licensed a solar panel that was built in 2010 and continued to work with the city, but at some point during the construction and licensing process for the other structures, ” the city has turned hard on them, but we can’t exactly prove why.
Angela Alioto, a civil rights lawyer working for Lee, claims the city violated Lee’s rights in February 2018, when the city filed a warrant signed by a judge, as well as police officers, a police dog and officials from the application of the code, to search the property. for license issues.
In addition to searching the temple and other structures, they searched Lee’s personal residence. “They go through his bathroom, his bedroom and his (clothes) drawers,” Alioto said.
In an interview, Alioto said the research, which was followed by a similar one in May 2018, only took place after the city initially set mutually acceptable appointment times for the inspections, then abruptly canceled them.
Alioto believes the research was designed to intimidate and “harass” Lee, and she claims the city is intentionally inflicting emotional distress on Lee as part of the conflict that has lasted for years.
“She doesn’t sleep, she cries all day. She’s a mess, ”Alioto said. “She was absolutely mistreated by the city’s permit officers,” she said.
At one point when Lee visited city offices, Alioto said that a code enforcement official, who has since retired, “commented on Lee’s appearance” in front of him. ‘other town staff, saying, “You look prettier without a hat.”
Lee “repeatedly asked” not to deal with this code enforcement official after the meeting, “but the city has ignored his multiple requests,” Alioto said in a statement.
“Fremont officials have discriminated against us for years,” Lee said in a statement.
“It is clear that the city’s double standards stem from who we are as a religious community. The Bay Area is renowned for its tolerance and inclusion, but these values are not shared by Fremont officials, ”she said.
Lee hopes to use the property as a temple for “a small group of members” who come to worship “the Buddhas, gods and goddesses” as well as “to meditate and research … in the hope of attaining enlightenment.”
Alioto filed a lawsuit against the city on May 3, alleging civil rights violations, unconstitutional invasions, abuse of power, fraud and trespassing. Alioto plans to file a complaint in mid-June, she said.
“The personal invasion is scandalous. The abuse of power because of my client’s religion, race and gender is so abusive and simply unacceptable in a civilized society, ”Alioto said.
The city is expected to hold an independent administrative hearing over the course of two days next week to decide the fate of the structures in question on the property.
Finney said the city should fine Lee and work with them to find a resolution that doesn’t require the buildings to be demolished.