After long legal battle, UDV church appears to have final OK

Nov 20, 2015 | English | 0 comments

SANTA FE, N.M. — A settlement in principle has been reached between Santa Fe County, a self-described “Christian Spiritist religion” that uses a hallucinogenic tea as a sacrament, and a half dozen residents of Arroyo Hondo southeast of Santa Fe opposed to the church building a temple in their neighborhood.

The agreement, approved by the County Commission last week, apparently ends a dispute that has lasted more than five years.

O Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal, also known as UDV, first applied to build a 14,000-square-foot, two-story temple at the intersection of Arroyo Hondo and Brass Horse roads on property owned by Seagram’s whiskey heir and UDV adherent Jeffrey Bonfman in 2009.

 These tanks are part of the UDV church’s building project in Arroyo Hondo. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

These tanks are part of the UDV church’s building project in Arroyo Hondo. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Since then, a series of lawsuits has been filed – first by UDV after its plan was voted down by the County Commission, then by the neighbors after UDV and the county agreed to a settlement. The latest settlement, reached with the assistance of a New Mexico Court of Appeals mediator, presumably brings an end to the litigation.

John Boyd, an attorney representing UDV, said Wednesday a few details still needed to be ironed out, but that an agreement had been reached in principle that “forms the basis for all pending litigation to be dismissed.”

There are two lawsuits pending – one in the state Court of Appeals and one in district court in Santa Fe, both brought by the neighbors.

“I think all parties are hoping and expecting this amicable resolution will be successful, and all parties will be looking forward to a friendly and neighborly relationship going forward,” Boyd said.

Joseph Karnes, an attorney for the neighbors, declined comment. According to Santa Fe County, the agreement:

Allows UDV to use its on-site well to supply water;
Limits the temple’s water use to 0.25 acre-foot per year, with an option for UDV to request an increase in its water use to 0.35 acre-foot per year, but not before Nov. 1, 2020;
Requires an independent firm selected by the neighbors to monitor the well’s use at six-month intervals for two years after the temple receives its certificate of occupancy;
Directs UDV to build a 7-foot coyote fence on Arroyo Hondo and Brass Horse roads;
Requires that the entrance to the temple be moved from Brass Horse Road to Arroyo Hondo Road;
Requires that UDV pay for upgrades to Brass Horse Road;
Directs Santa Fe County to pay attorneys’ fees and costs totalling $300,000.

The attorney fees and court costs are in addition to the $750,000 the county was required to pay under the previous settlement, meaning the county has paid more than $1 million in fees and costs to other parties while fighting litigation against both the church and the neighbors since the County Commission, in a 3-2 vote, turned down UDV’s application to build a temple in 2011 – the first time the county had rejected any church’s plans in more than 50 such cases.

But the county appears to have cut its losses with this new agreement. A previous settlement required the county to pay for a water line hookup to the temple. County officials told the Journal last spring that the more-than-mile-long water line was estimated to cost $3.5 million and would take years to construct.

“The County is pleased that a global, mutually agreeable settlement was finally reached,” the county said in a statement to the Journal. “This settlement ends years of litigation and brings repose to UDV and its neighbors.”

UDV began its effort to build a temple on 2.5 acres of land in what is mostly a residential area a mile or two outside Santa Fe’s city limits in 2009, where church members had been meeting in a yurt for years. The county’s planning staff twice turned down the application.

The UDV eventually met all the requirements and earned a recommendation for approval by the County Development Review Committee.

But the proposal met stiff opposition from neighbors, who argued the temple wasn’t compatible with existing development, would use too much water or contaminate groundwater with the tea, and that UDV members might be under the influence of hoasca when driving after services.

After hearing more than six hours of testimony during a public hearing in July 2011, the County Commission rejected the church’s plans.

That action drew a federal lawsuit by UDV against the county, claiming religious discrimination. Before a judge rendered a ruling, however, the parties agreed to a settlement. UDV agreed to become a county water customer when hookups were installed, confine services to inside the temple and build a wall around the property. Neighbors contested the settlement, but it was upheld in February 2014.

The Arroyo Hondo residents didn’t give up and earlier this year filed a new complaint accusing county government of improperlychanging water service terms of its settlement with UDV.

UDV, according to its website, has 17,000 followers in six countries, but only about 270 of them live in the United States.

In 1999, federal agents seized drums of the hallucinogenic hoasca tea, which is imported from Brazil where the plants used to make it grow in the Amazon basin, from the Santa Fe congregation and threatened to prosecute Bronfman.

After Bronfman filed a civil lawsuit on behalf of UDV, the case eventually ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 2006 unanimously upheld a lower court’s decision to allow the tea to be imported.

Vía: Albuquerque Journal