Livermore’s iconic Shiva Vishnu Temple — also known as the Hindu Community and Cultural Center (HCCC) — received approval last week (Nov. 16) to increase its operating hours and to allow music outdoors.
In a decision weighing a religious institution’s ability to practice its rituals and customs while not bothering its neighbors, the Livermore Planning Commission unanimously agreed to update the temple’s conditional use permit that had limited late night activities and prohibited devotees from playing music while honoring their Gods.
“What we see is the need for a balance between freedom of religion and the idea that a man’s home is his castle,” said Planning Commissioner John Stein. “The fact that we’ve had no official complaints for 10 years ... speaks strongly about the fact they are a good neighbor.”
Temple officials, who provide a worship facility for Bay Area Hindus at 1232 Arrowhead Dr., requested changes to a conditional use permit issued during a building expansion in 2010 that places conditions on their hours and how much noise they can make. The property established in 1977 grew along with the surrounding neighborhood.
The request was simple: Open their doors at 6 a.m., instead of 7 a.m., and close at 10 p.m., instead of 9 p.m.; Increase the number of annual special events that continue to midnight from 6 to 9; allow for limited outdoor amplified music for special religious services and processions; and reopen 22 parking stalls eliminated because of its proximity to neighboring homes. Temple officials said they hoped to use the parking spots closer to their building for seniors, disabled people and their priests, who don’t wear shoes.
The 11-year-old permit placed other restrictions on the temple, including requiring officials to notify neighbors about events, eliminate amplified music and install landscaping and fencing between the parking area and their neighbors' houses.
Sreeni Malireddy, a representative of HCCC, told the panel the institution had met the requirements, but had been forced to compromise some of its religious practices, including rushing through services that had to end by 8 p.m. or not holding them at all in the early morning.
Most services, Malireddy said, are held indoors, but some festivals include processions with devotees praising Gods by carrying the deities around their building.
Malireddy said they wanted to use an iPhone, not a loudspeaker system, to add music and would adhere to 60 decibels, which is about the sound of a normal conversation.
Twenty people voiced support for the changes during the meeting.
Some neighbors, however, wrote letters in opposition.
Ricci and Michelle Ragnesi, who live next to the temple, complained that “non-Hindu residents that live in homes surrounding the temple are being discriminated against for not being Hindu or wishing to worship their religion.” The Ragnesis said the temple creates traffic, noise and parking problems in their neighborhood.
Tom and Luanda Sherman wrote that the expansion of hours was “unreasonable and unsuitable for our and/or any neighborhood.”
Malireddy countered that his temple’s devotees had adhered to the rules and engaged in activities that benefited the community, including inviting neighbors annually for lunch, and holding blood drives, health fairs and yoga classes. Any outdoor music the commission might allow, he said, would last a maximum of 20 to 30 minutes.
“We have gone out of our way to police ourselves and be the best possible neighbor,” Malireddy said.
City staff agreed, saying they had not received complaints in years. Commissioners questioned whether other religious institutions in the city had restrictions placed on their activities.
Project Planner Jennifer Ackerman cited three Christian churches with conditional use permits, but said none placed restrictions on hours, noise and traffic. One church, Ackerman said, had a permit that addressed parking; another had restrictions on landscaping; and one institution required permits for processions when police officers and firefighters were needed.
Although the city’s planning department recommended the planning commission allow everything but the parking changes, the commissioners approved all the temple’s requests with the condition that outdoor amplified music will be limited during each event to a maximum of one hour at low decibels. The commissioners also approved reopening some of the 22 parking spaces following a review by the city’s transportation and landscaping department
Malireddy said temple officials will continue to find ways to coexist with some of their neighbors.
“We will continue to be a good neighbor,” he said. “We will definitely reach out to them.”