Sunday, September 26, 2010

By Jessica Dyer

Journal Staff Writer

A Santa Fe religious group that spent years fighting the government for the right to legally drink tea made of hallucinogenic plant extracts during services is now alleging that it’s being treated unfairly by Santa Fe County.

More than a year after local members of Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao Do Vegetal (UDV) submitted an application to Santa Fe County to build a temple in Arroyo Hondo, off Old Las Vegas Highway east of town, the master plan and preliminary development plan have yet to reach the public hearing stage.

Shelley Cobau, the county’s land use case manager for the application, said that’s because UDV’s initial submittal — and an amended version turned in in April — were deemed incomplete by the planning staff.

But UDV’s attorney claims the temple is facing more scrutiny than other community service facilities — as it has been classified by the county — and is being subjected to even higher standards than a bar would be.

That scrutiny has included a letter from a county attorney asking why the group can’t move its temple somewhere else and when the Arroyo Hondo site was consecrated.

Because of the church’s use of hoasca tea during services, the county wants UDV to submit a “reasonable plan addressing public safety” in order for the application to be ruled complete, according to a July 30 letter from Deputy County Attorney Rachel Brown. Another county letter last year asked whether UDV members would be locked up without their car keys before consuming the tea.

UDV attorney Christopher Graeser said the temple doesn’t pose a risk to public safety and no such plan should be required. “There is absolutely no evidence of an impact on public safety. There is no requirement in the Land Use Code for a public safety plan,” Graeser wrote in an e-mail to the Journal. “No other applicant has had to submit such a plan, including applications with full liquor licenses even in the face of uncontrovertible (sic) evidence of the public safety impacts of driving while under the influence of alcohol in Santa Fe County.”

The initial application to build a 7,100-square foot temple, caretaker’s residence, yurt, greenhouse, utility room, storage building and parking lot on a 2 1/2-acre Arroyo Hondo property owned by the Jeffrey Bronfman Trust was filed in July 2009. The caretaker’s residence and greenhouse have since been eliminated from the plans.

According to the initial filing, UDV holds services the first and third Saturday of the month from 8 p.m. to midnight, with two extra services per month.

The plan — which requires rezoning the property from agricultural/residential use to a “community service facility” — quickly drew fire from some neighbors. They primarily objected to any nonresidential land uses and still do, said Arroyo Hondo resident Linda Spier.

“We cherish this rural, residential neighborhood, and we want it to remain rural and residential,” Spier said Friday. “It’s a zoning issue.”

But some also expressed concern that church members might be impaired by hoasca as they drove away from services, posing a danger to others in the community.

 Those issues have also been reiterated by the county. “The question for Santa Fe County is not the health effects of the practice on the individual so much as its effect on others in the larger community,” the county’s Brown wrote to Graeser.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2006 upheld the rights of members of UDV — a Christian-based religion founded in Brazil in 1961 — to import and use hoasca. But the county argues that the ruling doesn’t mean governments can’t subject UDV to local laws — including the land use code, which Brown wrote “exists to protect neighbors and the community from negative impacts.”

UDV submitted its third version of the application earlier this month. Included was a 21-page federal court settlement agreement between UDV and the federal government signed in July. The settlement outlines the guidelines UDV must follow when importing, tracking, manufacturing, distributing and storing hoasca tea. The settlement was the conclusion to a 10-year legal battle between UDV and the U.S. government.

UDV attorney Nancy Hollander wrote a letter for inclusion with UDV’s latest submittal noting that the agreement from federal court “should be more than enough” to satisfy Santa Fe County.

“As you will see (in the settlement) … the United States Government is satisfied that the UDV members may safely continue to practice their faith without harm to themselves, their children or others,” Hollander wrote.

Graeser said he has made it clear to county staffers that he believes his client is receiving disparate treatment, but Cobau disputes any unfairness.

“This is how we handle all cases,” she said.

Cobau added that neighborhood opposition to the UDV proposal hasn’t increased county scrutiny of the application, although a 2009 letter to Graeser from Deputy County Attorney Ted Apodaca questioned why UDV couldn’t find another site given the level of residents’ concerns. He noted that other churches don’t or can’t always put facilities on consecrated ground.

“When was (the Arroyo Hondo location) consecrated and how? How many services have been held on the grounds since being consecrated? Are not services currently being held elsewhere; e.g., Sunrise Springs in La Cienega; and have those grounds been consecrated in order to conduct services? If not, why not?” Apodaca wrote to Graeser in a letter dated Dec. 1.

“Since neighborhood opposition is so intense in Arroyo Hondo, what obstacles or impediments does the UDV Temple view in possibly selecting another site that would not face such strong neighborhood opposition?”

In the same letter, Apodaca addresses the churchgoers’ ability to drive after consuming hoasca tea during services. He asks whether UDV would agree to obtain an insurance policy naming the county as an additional insured, covering the county for potential liability should a UDV member get into a car crash after a service.

He also inquires about the precautions the church takes to ensure members are fit to drive after drinking tea during services, asking whether the steps might include collecting car keys and locking them up before tea is consumed or locking the doors to prevent members from leaving before they have recovered.

Graeser responded that those proposed steps offended UDV members. He said the Arroyo Hondo site was consecrated in 1993 by the Cadre of Mestres of UDV and 469 services had been held at the location since then — most with sacramental hoasca. Services were held at the site in a yurt for more than a dozen years “without a single complaint,” he wrote.

Brown replied in a follow-up letter that Apodaca was merely questioning — not stipulating — how UDV would ensure members didn’t leave services impaired. In previous correspondence, she wrote, Graeser noted that UDV’s official security practice is to close and lock gates during services to keep intruders out and keep people from driving away during sessions, although he said UDV does not lock doors.

UDV’s latest submittal requests that the application get moved to the next stage — a hearing before the County Development Review Committee.

“At this point, UDV has addressed each and every issue raised by County staff and there is no basis on which to impose further delay,” Graeser wrote.

Cobau said the county has 30 days to review the application.

“We hope it is a complete submittal, so we can get this through our process,” she said.

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