EAST MANATEE -- A quiet neighborhood in East Manatee is up in arms about a quiet spiritual community in their midst that wants to build a nearly 10,000-square-foot worship center on a 2.39-acre lot.
The group, a Daoist congregation called the Shien Deh Temple, has been operating for at least a decade out of a 4,000-square-foot home at 6916 18th Ave. E., just east of Morgan Johnson Road.
Temple leaders say they expect their congregation to grow and simply need more room, and don't want to upset the community.
"We're very quiet," said Lee Daly, a member of the temple. "We don't want to cause problems with anyone."
Many neighbors, however, object to the size of the proposed structure, and are raising traffic and safety concerns as well.
In August 2012, the temple applied for a special permit to build a two-story, 9,750-square-foot building to accommodate rooms for meditation and a sanctuary.
The county attorney's office and zoning staff recommended approval of the project, as long as the worship space accommodates no more than 52 people, and the owners provide 17 parking spaces on the property and make other improvements, such as a new septic system and a fire department connection.
Last month, however, county hearing officer Jack
Hawkins notified the temple he intended to deny the permit, saying the proposed use was not compatible with the adjacent residential area, "nor is it consistent with the character of the immediate surrounding neighborhood," he wrote in his decision.
Robert Lincoln, a lawyer representing Shien Deh, filed objections, arguing Hawkins misinterpreted the law in making his decision. A second hearing was held June 17. Hawkins is nearing a deadline to inform the temple and members of the neighborhood of his intentions. Barring objections, the decision would become final.
Rossina Leider, a senior development review specialist for Manatee County, said Hawkins has the option to approve or deny the permit for the new building, or he could grant a permit for the temple to continue operation in the existing house.
In the request for a new hearing, Lincoln noted that the temple has been in operation for more than 10 years without complaints from neighbors.
But neighbors are complaining now, and loudly, about the plans for a new building.
George and Jackie Lusby have lived in the neighborhood for 15 years, about 1,000 feet from where the temple would stand.
"We're in a flood zone," Jackie Lusby said. "You put a building that size in there, there will be more flooding."
"I just don't think it's right to put a great big building in our neighborhood. They want to put a two-story building in there, 35 feet in the air. It's just not proper," George Lusby said.
Lincoln says concerns over the building are "frankly ridiculous." He said many homes in that neighborhood have tall storage sheds, garages and barns. "There are aluminum or steel-sided RV barns all over," Lincoln said. "Nobody ever said anything about the size of the building at the hearings."
Wendy Fleming, who has lived in the neighborhood for eight years, says the safety of children is her main concern.
"It's very secluded out here. We don't have sidewalks," she said.
The Lusbys also worry about extra traffic in the area that could endanger children who must walk on the roadway in that area to reach bus stops. "We know about everybody in our neighborhood. We watch out for these kids," George Lusby said.
Daly said temple members are aware of these issues. "We're concerned about safety as well," she said.
Fleming said the people living at the Shien Deh home often kept to themselves until just before the first zoning hearing April 17. She said a man and three women came to her door.
"They brought me muffins and invited me to a meeting at the IHOP," Fleming said.
Fleming said she did not go to the meeting and knows very little about Shien Deh followers.
"I've never been to a temple," she said.
Neighbor Sheila Nealwas worried about more activity on the temple's property.
"I've seen tents and port-o-lets on that property, so that tells me they're trying to expand," Neal added.
"It's OK to expand your cause. I just want them to expand their cause somewhere other than my neighborhood."
Daly says attendance at the temple now varies between 20 and 25 people, for two weekend meetings a month and night meetings based on the cycle of the moon.
What is Shien Deh?
Neighbors know very little about the congregation, which is pronounced "Shinda" and means "Sage Virtue" in Mandarin Chinese, according to Daly, a member of the temple since 2001.
Daly says Dao can be described as a way to see the divine in everyone.
"We study to reveal the God within," she explained. "If we think of the term 'God' ... the way that God would believe, we have that inside of us all," that is often blocked by ego or negative habits.
"We do not advertise at all. We don't have a website," said Kathleen Bailey, who is listed as the chairman and CEO of the Ming Deh Development Society Corp. in Bradenton, a nonprofit corporation that owns the temple and the property on 18th Avenue East.
According to a Dun and Bradstreet search entered into evidence at the special permit hearing in April, the Ming Deh Development Society Corp. lists three employees and an annual income of $270,000.
Bailey is listed as the chairman and CEO; Cynthia P. Lam is listed as vice president; Johnny T. Mohr is the corporation's CEO.
Shien Deh membersare hopeful that neighborhood harmony can be restored.
"I think it can be worked out," Daly said. "We can talk about it as a community if things go forward."
Jim DeLa, East Manatee editor, can be reached at 941-745-7011. Follow him on Twitter @JimDeLaBH.