Members of the O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal spent more than five years battling for the legal right to use their sacrament — a hallucinogenic tea concocted from two different Amazonian plants. They won.
And they’ve spent the past two years working to obtain permission for the right to build a temple near Arroyo Hondo. That issue has yet to be settled.
On Tuesday, the Santa Fe County Board of County Commission is scheduled to vote on whether to grant the group — commonly referred to as UDV — approval for a master plan and preliminary development-plan to build a temple in the residential area southeast of Santa Fe.
The group proposes a 4,660-square-foot structure with a 1,900-square-foot covered portal that would be enclosed in a future phase. That would amount to a total enclosed area of about 6,560 square feet at full build-out. The application also proposes a 706-square-foot yurt and several storage buildings.
The county staff is recommending approval, stating in a memo prepared for policymakers that, after two years of tweaking, UDV’s application satisfies the submittal requirements of the county code.
But Tuesday’s meeting is still likely to be a contentious one.
Area residents, united via the Arroyo Hondo Land Trust, are fighting fiercely to prevent the temple from being built in their area.
The neighborhood group has contracted with a local law firm to prepare a document that challenges the validity of numerous points in UDV’s application.
Chief among the complaints listed in the 100-plus-page document is the assertion that the applicant has not demonstrated an adequate water budget or water supply.
Another point of contention is the group’s late-night activities. Services are estimated to begin at around 8 p.m. and last about four hours, with a few more hours afterward set aside for eating and visiting among members. Opponents also raise the possibility that worshipers who have ingested the tea would be leaving the services in a state of impairment. There are also fears that traces of the hallucinogenic tea could end up in the area’s water table.
As part of its application, UDV has presented a statement from Dr. Charles S. Grob, a doctor and psychiatrist who has studied the effects of hoasca tea and its use as a sacrament.
“The effects begin to wane at about the three hour point,” Grob wrote in his statement. “After four hours, when the sessions are ritually closed, participants have returned to their normal state of consciousness.”
The neighbors also are concerned that the 2.5-acre lot where UDV wants to build the temple is too small for the proposed building. They also worry that having hoasca tea on the premises will create security issues.
Evelyn Bemis, a Realtor who is president of the Arroyo Hondo Land Trust and a 30-year resident of the area, said she also opposes the county’s characterizing the project as a “community service facility.” She feels the group is insular and doesn’t offer any “perceivable benefit” to area residents.
Attorney Chris Graeser, representing UDV, addressed some of those concerns Friday.
One thing Graeser noted is that members of the religion — a Christian-based religion founded in Brazil in 1961 — have been congregating informally on a yurt on the property since 1992 in about the same numbers they predict will attend the new temple, without bothering the unsuspecting neighbors.
“No one noticed and no one complained,” Graeser said. “There were no issues until the application to do the same activity in a permanent structure was filed. They’ve already been living with the impacts.”
“An essential point is, if you drive to the site from outside the community, from N.M. 285, you only pass one house on the way to the site. And that is the home of Jeffrey Bronfman,” Graeser said.
Bronfman, who started the local group and whose family founded the Seagrams whiskey brand in Canada, owns the land UDV proposes for the temple.
Bemis disputes the assertion that the group has been meeting with the same frequency and numbers as stated in its application — about 100 people at about 50 services per year. She said the fact that the group met on the land quietly, without neighbors’ knowledge, created conflict between the parties from the beginning.
But the bottom line, Bemis said, is that Arroyo Hondo is a rural residential area and she and her neighbors want to keep it that way.
Area residents, some of whom boast three generations in Arroyo Hondo, have a long history of actively protecting that character. They raised $300,000 to help Santa Fe County purchase as open space a piece of land that creates a buffer between the majority of residents and N.M. 285. They also have donated money to mount a case against the temple project.
“We realize you can’t buy everything,” Bemis said. “If we could, we’d love to see a house on (the property). We would be fine with that. We would raise the money to buy it.”
Bemis said UDV has rebuffed the Land Trust’s offer to purchase the property.
The case concerning the proposed temple is the last one scheduled to be heard during the County Commission’s Tuesday meeting, which starts at 2 p.m. in the Commission Chambers at 102 Grant Ave.
Contact Phaedra Haywood at 986-3068 or email@example.com.