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Councillor: Buddhists didn't act in a Christian way

Bill McNulty draws a contentious line in the sand at planning committee meeting as Lingyen temple proposal goes back to staff for revisions

Long-time City of Richmond councillor and chair of the city's planning committee Bill McNulty added more than a wrinkle in the long debate over the Lingyen Mountain Temple expansion proposal by suggesting the Buddhist applicants hadn't acted in a "Christian way."

"I'm a Christian and that's not a Christian way of doing things," said McNulty Wednesday in front of a packed planning committee meeting room. McNulty's audience took pause as he expressed his sentiments over the way the applicants had previously — years ago — bypassed city hall and went directly to the Agricultural Land Commission to draw land out of the Agricultural Land Reserve.

"When you go behind my back, I question your motives," said McNulty, who then repeated several times that he is Christian and wanted it "on the record." 

The latest of many proposals by Lingyen members to build a 200,000 square foot Buddhist temple facility on No. 5 Road, next to its existing temple, was referred back to city planners after city staff told the planning committee the applicants had made "substantial revisions" and more time was needed for negotiations.

Following the meeting, renowned architect James Cheng, whose namesake company has spearheaded the decade-long proposal process, said he hopes religious affiliation has nothing to do with the application. 

"I'm shocked. I don't know what to say," said Cheng, who comes from a Christian background himself.

On Thursday McNulty apologized for his comments.

"I was not comparing religious values and faith because I have respect for all of them," he said, adding that his religious affiliation has never interfered with his council duties.

He said the comments came out of frustration for the proposal process.

All city councillors attended the important meeting and were largely taken aback by the news that substantial revisions had reportedly been made. And while the committee voted in favour of the referral - Coun. Harold Steves was the only one against sending it back to staff - the general sentiment was that such revisions would indeed have to be substantial.

Coun. Evelina Halsey-Brandt called the current proposal "unacceptable." Coun. Ken Johnston echoed Halsey-Brandt, saying, "There would have to be massive changes for me to vote in favour of this."

While Steves voted the referral down (with the intention of rejecting it all together) Mayor Malcolm Brodie said there would be little point in not hearing what the revisions would be.

"With a massive amount of rework, there may be something that comes of this," said Brodie.  

After the meeting, Cheng shared some of his revisions with the Richmond News.

Among them is to lower the maximum height of any new building, namely the 'main hall,' from 99 feet to that of the existing temple, or about 76 feet. Also, he said he would work with city staff to decrease the intrusion into agricultural land.

At issue — as it relates to re-zoning — is the temple's attempt to expand its place of worship by building on the No. 5Road backlands, which are protected in the Agricultural Land Reserve. The backlands policy was installed to allow religious groups a place to build houses of worship on the east side of No. 5 Road. In exchange, the organizations must preserve the back two-thirds of the lot and farm it. 

Under the proposal, the temple would swap an equal amount of land it owns at the front of No. 5 Road back into the land reserve. That land is three lots south of the proposed expansion plot. 

Cheng says the swap would create a more unified plot of farmable land as it would connect with the Fantasy Gardens land. He also said it would benefit the temple to aggregate its temple facilities.

Such changes call for a significant departure in zoning policy. Cheng noted such a policy is intended to increase agricultural viability and his proposal is, in fact, doing that.

He noted the temple would improve drainage in the area to make the land more farmable. It would also build a farm access road. He also said the opportunity to have farmland fronting No. 5 Road presented a unique opportunity.

Steves said swapping the land wasn't an option but Cheng considers such thinking "dogmatic."

"He is failing to acknowledge what the city is gaining," said Cheng.

Cheng pointed to a past city report that indicated Lingyen was the only organization that had attempted farming its land. He said for that reason alone, he couldn't understand why there was such distrust.

Cheng admitted, to date, he had failed to frame the expansion in a way for people to understand the apparent social, spiritual and community benefits Lingyen can provide all Richmondites.

"We didn't do a good job presenting this to the public," said Cheng.   

According to the most recent staff report, there exists a division within the Shellmont area. Lingyen members say there is significant support in the area, as well as throughout Richmond, on the whole. Meanwhile, a group of opponents has formed under the banner CALMR (Citizens Against Lingyen Mega Retreat).

One of CALMR's founders, Carol Day, a former school trustee and unsuccessful municipal and provincial election candidate, was at Wednesday's meeting.

She said traffic and parking issues would be too cumbersome for local residents. That's because the expansion would double the number of residents living in the temple, as well as double the number of people temporarily visiting Lingyen on 3-7 day "retreats," which Cheng said presently occur three times a year.


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