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County Commission Denies Religious Temple in Arroyo Hondo

SANTA FE, N.M. — Ruling on one of its most controversial land use cases in years, the Santa Fe County Commission on Tuesday denied an application for a religious temple in Arroyo Hondo.
Commissioners voted 3-2 to reject a request from local members of Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao Do Vegetal (UDV) for master plan zoning and preliminary development plan approval of a 4,660-square-foot temple on a 2.52-acre property at the intersection of Arroyo Hondo and Brass Horse roads.
Plans also included a 540-square-foot covered portal, a yurt, a utility room, storage building and 1,900-square-foot roof and slab that would have been enclosed at some point in the future.
The commission’s decision was met with cheers and applause from dozens of Arroyo Hondo neighbors who attended the meeting in opposition to the project. Residents of the area have mounted a strong campaign against the temple over the past couple of years and the Arroyo Hondo Land Trust retained the services of Santa Fe law firm Sommer, Karnes & Associates in late December.
Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao Do Vegetal is a Christian-based religion that uses hoasca tea, made of hallucinogenic plant extracts, as a sacrament. The church’s legal right to import and use hoasca tea was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006.
Commissioners Robert Anaya, Danny Mayfield and Kathy Holian voted against the proposal. “When I read the code as the code is written and I see the word ‘community services facility’ and compatibility and take those into consideration, that’s the basis for my vote,” Anaya said.
UDV had sought the community service facility designation – defined in the county code as a place that “provides service to a local community organization” and can include churches – as part of its application.
Holian, in explaining her decision, said only “I cannot support this development.”
Commissioners Virginia Vigil and Liz Stefancis voted in favor of the application.
“I believe this is not a decision the community wants to have happen, yet I believe the applicant has complied with existing code,” Stefanics said.
She also pointed out that “we do have churches in the area,” as well as other community service facilities.
“One has to wonder, if there are already existing churches in the area, what’s so different about this?” Stefanics said.
County staff recommended approval of the project, as did the advisory County Development Review Committee.
UDV’s main attorney, Chris Graeser, declined to comment after the meeting, including on whether the church will appeal decision. Jeffrey Bronfman, a member of the family that formerly owned alcoholic beverage company Seagram’s and donator of the land on which the temple would have been built, also declined to comment.
Opponents have argued that members of the church might leave services while still under the influence of hoasca, potentially making them reckless drivers, and that the use of hoasca could contaminate the area’s water supply.
More recently, the primary claims against UDV’s application were that it underestimates potential water use and availability; its wastewater system is undersized and could potentially leak contaminants; the temple plan is too large for its lot and fundamentally incompatible with the surrounding “long-established and rural residential neighborhood.”
Neighbors also said they were concerned about the late hours of the temple’s services, which could potentially cause late-night traffic, noise and lighting headaches.
The temple hosts services the first and third Saturday of each month from 8 p.m.-midnight, as well as two other services per month.
UDV representatives maintained that their application is in compliance with land use code. They said members are family-oriented and safety-conscious and noted the group met in a yurt at the same location for over a decade with no complaints or problems.
Independent consultants hired by Santa Fe County said Tuesday that UDV’s application met the county’s water and wastewater requirements.
Tuesday’s meeting lasted over two hours. The County Commission also heard more than six hours of testimony on the issue last month.