Quaker retreat puts neighbors on the offensive

By Reggie Ellis

If you take Mineral King Avenue east from Farmersville Boulevard you'll run right into the Quaker Oaks Christmas Tree Farm and Visalia Friends Meetinghouse.

The property is owned by Bill and Beth Lovett who live nextdoor to the religious hall. Behind the Lovetts home is gated area for goats. Across the way sheep graze in the overgrown grass and peacocks roam freely disappearing into the tall weeds. Venture further and you'll find the back door to the Kaweah Oaks Preserve, a Boy Scout campground and sweat huts still used by the Wukchumni tribe for spiritual ceremonies.

"The grass is a little tall but it is beautiful and wild," Lovett said.

Lovett walks with a slow, slightly crooked gait across his 23 acres. Dressed in a straw hat, plaid shirt and slacks held up by rainbow suspenders the 82-year-old Quaker points out his plans to leave his land to his congregation to build a complex for their annual meeting. His skin creased by years in the sun and a slight hump from a life of manual labor, Lovett is hardly the poster boy for development. But according to neighbors, his plans to build a convention center-style facility is threatening their rural way of life.

In 1999, Lovett's family offered their 23-acre property as a location for a convention center for the annual meeting of the Pacific Friends Outreach Society (PFOS), a west coast branch of the Religious Society of Friends, better known as Quakers. In 2002, PFOS received gifts in excess of $500,000 to begin the process of applying for a conditional use permit from the Tulare County Planning Commission. Since then, PFOS has been working on a preliminary application but has not yet filed for the permit. As conditions of the agreement, Lovett said PFOS must gain the permit and spend $1 million on the project in the first five years. Lovett also stipulated that he and his wife, Beth, will continue to live in their house on the property as long as they live and that they both will hold permanent positions on the PFOS board that will be passed to one of their children for 21 years after their deaths.

Opponents believe the Quakers are waiting to see if another project, Walther Enterprises, will be allowed to expand use of property at Road 168 and Mineral King Avenue as a meeting hall for concerts, weddings and large parties. The project, located on a 27-acre parcel, is also applying for a liquor license. The Zoning Commissioner has yet to rule on the project but opponents fear the project will open the door for the Quaker center.

In fact, it was the Walther project that tipped off neighboring residents about the Quaker center. Because no formal permit has been filed with the county's Resource Management Agency, there is no legal requirement to notify residents. Normally, anyone living or owning a business within 300 feet of a project must be notified and a public hearing notice is published in a local newspaper.

Executive Director Sharlene Roberts-Caudle said PFOS plans to construct a dormitory and central complex to accommodate 400-500 people for the annual gathering of its Pacific Yearly Meeting. The Pacific Yearly Meeting (PYM) is one of the 33 organizational bodies of the North American Quaker church, called the Religious Society of Friends.

Campground facilities will include bathhouses and a kitchen-pavilion so that guests can cook for themselves and their families. Sojourner cabins will be available for longer stays by individuals and families. An Environmental Education building will feature classrooms and lab facilities. A library will offer a home for the Pacific Yearly Meeting Archive Collection. There will also be a handicapped-accessible Olympic-sized pool, an amphitheater, fountain and playing field will offer opportunities for outdoor activities.

An Indian Roundhouse, designed in partnership with local Native Americans, will be used for Native American ceremonies and provide educational opportunities for guests. Fruit and nut trees and other organic crops will weave through the site providing first-hand exposure to sustainable agriculture practices. A portal to the adjacent 320-acre Kaweah Oaks Preserve will provide environmental educational opportunities for guests in addition to hiking paths for recreational activity.

"We want to create an education facility where people can learn about farming," Lovett said.

On the northern side of the farm is a 30-acre subdivision of six homesites. These parcels are all owned by Quakers who are forming a community. To the south is Highway 198 and to the east is the 320-acre Kaweah Oaks Preserve. On western side is five-acre ranchettes.

One of those properties belongs to Bruce Geiger who said the amount of people the project will accommodate is not something that should be in a primarily agricultural area. Geiger, who owns his own financial planning business, said the size of the project is similar to the size of a hotel and convention center.

"It's like putting the Radisson next to your house," Geiger said. "It's a nice idea, it's just in the wrong location."

Geiger is worried about the times when when the facility will be used by other organizations. Part of PFOS's plan includes a wastewater treatment facility and a year-round operation for renting out the facility for 120 days a year.

"Obviously a facility needs to be used to justify its existence," Lovett said. "It would be selfish to reserve it for our group only. We will need a nominal sum to help pay for it but we aren't looking to create a business. We are a non-profit."

Beyond homes like Geiger's is a 45-acre walnut orchard farmed by Brian Blaine. Blaine said having a large number of people there year-round could hamper his operation. "That many people would limit spraying [pesticides] and harvesting," Blaine said. "The dust stirred up during harvesting is incompatible with those kinds of uses."

Blaine, who has been farming the property for 15 years, said PFOS suggested that he postpone spraying and harvesting for a week during high-use times. "I don't have that luxury if I have an infestation or if the crop is prime. A week can be the difference between a profit or a huge loss."

Blaine is also concerned about the wastewater treatment facility. If it fails or leaks, he said that large of a facility could damage the soil and groundwater for the entire area, including a nearby water recharge facility operated by the Kaweah Delta Water Conservation District.

But both Blaine and Geiger said they are worried that the project will create a pattern of "leapfrog" development, creating patches of urban areas within agricultural lands. Blaine, who also sits on the Tulare County Farm Bureau's Land Use Committee, said the Farm Bureau official, opposes the project.

"I think it is a wonderful project that everyone would like to see on the edge of an urban area or in the foothills," Blaine said. "We are seeing an increased number of proposed developments in the county that would potentially impact agriculture."

Lovett said Blaine owns several farms next to urban areas and that there are many homes closer to the project than his property that would be more affected by spray and dust. Lovett, an organic farmer, said he doesn't understand where the conflict lies.

Despite their claims that it will not affect the area, PFOS has decided to scale back the operation from a permanent structure to a camping area and then build the rest in phases over the course of several years. The new proposal includes a platform tent campground, outdoor amphitheater, ropes course for trust and teambuilding exercises and a swimming pool.

Lovett said this will allow them to work with the neighbors and show how the facility can fit in with the surrounding homes and farms. Lovett said Quakers are quiet, humble people whose congregation or "meetings" pray through group meditation followed by a sharing of ideas and thoughts. Quakers also believe in non-violent conflict resolution, gender equality and environmental conservation.

"We want to put on programs for school children and adults about organic farming, conflict resolution nature and science," Lovett said. "These are things the entire community and the entire county can benefit from."

Quakers projects have a history of being good neighbors. Quakers donated the original acreage above Springville in 1957 on which SCICON was built. Now a 1,100-acre campus, the Clemmie Gill School of Science and Conservation (SCICON) is operated by the Tulare County Office of Education. SCICON plays host to more than 15,000 students each year with hiking trails, a museum of natural history, planetarium, observatory, raptor center and amphitheater for evening activities.

A Quaker service organization, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), built the first organized self-help housing community in Appalachia in the 1930s. Thirty years later, the organization planted the roots for organized self-help housing as a national program when it helped families in the poor community of Goshen, located in the heart of California's San Joaquin Valley. The success of the first 20 families led to AFSC's decision to create an organization that would continue to channel resources into the San Joaquin Valley. In February 1965, Self-Help Enterprises (SHE) was incorporated as the first rural self-help housing organization in the nation.

Lovett said he bought his property in 1979 when he was still working for Self Help as construction director in the new home division. He retired in 1987 to build his own house and began an organic Christmas Tree farm.

"The idea is to keep this natural," Lovett said.

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