Residents oppose
religious center

More than 130 people at
a hearing debate whether
the project is appropriate
for the area

About 70 Pacific Heights residents went to City Hall yesterday to oppose a proposed religious meditation center at the top of their hillside neighborhood.

But the Institute for Research in Human Happiness mustered about an equal number of supporters for its planned $8 million retreat.

The Department of Planning and Permitting hearing was moved from a 40-seat room to the Honolulu Hale courtyard to accommodate the crowd of 137 testifiers, and continued for nearly five hours.

The Buddhist-based religious group, also known as Kofuku-no-Kagaku, has applied for a conditional use permit to build on a 3.2-acre site that was the home of the late John Dominis Holt and his wife, Frances Damon Holt. The 19,500-square-foot complex would include living accommodations for 10 staff members and 25 visitors who would stay for a three-day directed- meditation training session.

"This is a business," resident Mel Miyagi told hearing officer Eileen Mark. "If a secular organization came with a plan for a 25-bed hotel, you would deny it. This use is inappropriate in residential zoning."

Miyagi, an attorney, said institute officials told the Nuuanu/Punchbowl Neighborhood Board that its Japan meditation centers charge participants $300 a night. "At that rate, they will gross $2.4 million a year. It's a huge moneymaking business."

The Rev. Sean Matsumoto did not respond to critics' claims, saying: "This is not the place to persuade the neighbors. We have included our information in the application," which shows plans for monastic living accommodations. "A religious facility where people stay overnight is common in Buddhism and Catholicism."

Residents' concerns about overtaxing the sewers, adding dangerous traffic to the narrow, winding road and losing the view and ambience of the high-end residential neighborhood repeated testimony they brought to the Nuuanu/Punchbowl Neighborhood Board three times earlier this year.

A concern from Nuuanu, below Pacific Heights, was raised by state Rep. Sylvia Luke (D, Pacific Heights-Punchbowl). She said the institute property is near land that is the alleged source of boulders that have rolled down into Henry Street homes. A falling boulder crashed into a home and killed Dara Rei Onishi on Aug. 9, 2002.

Pacific Heights landowner, Vance Vaughn Revocable Trust, was sued by Onishi's parents and was named in a suit again last month by Henry Street residents Dan and Elaine Hirashima. They also sued the city for allowing water to be diverted into the Vaughn property, causing erosion of the mountainside.

Jiro Imai, Kofuku-no-Kagaku international director, said: "Meditation may not seem like a religious practice to Westerners. It is a practical and effective religious practice for people who are under stress in a society with war, economic, social and personal problems. Time out in a serene place can heal and re-energize minds. That is exactly why we chose Pacific Heights."

Planning Department Director Eric Crispin told the crowd, "We are looking at mitigating circumstances to reduce negative impacts, and at what is allowable by law."

The decision is his and will be made by Aug. 24, he said. Next Friday is the deadline for written testimony to be submitted.



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