An illegal paradise
It may be a church sanctuary, but the Goddess Temple needs a use permit, county officials say
In retrospect, Robert Seals knows he shouldn’t have hosted a huge Earth Dance Festival last year at The Goddess Temple, the sanctuary he’s developed in the foothills up Highway 32 east of Chico.
Right afterward, some of his neighbors got together and complained to Butte County officials. Those residents in the area of Santos Ranch Road weren’t too happy about the dust and noise from the 500-plus people who attended the festival. They questioned whether the property’s buildings were up to code, and Seals has heard that some have complained they can’t sell their houses because of his place.
“They decided this [the Goddess Temple] wasn’t going to happen in their neighborhood,” Seals said. It didn’t take long before the county cited Seals for building- and land-use-permit violations.
“We’ve backed way off from having events like the Earth Dance Festival,” Seals acknowledged during a recent interview, explaining the temple and its grounds are still available for smaller gatherings, such as weddings, funerals, seminars and workshops. “They’re on us for a permit to be a church—a quasi-public use permit.”
While he welcomes the opportunity to bring the temple into permit compliance, Seals is frustrated by the lengthiness of a process that he says includes considerable county bureaucracy. He’s hired Michael Evans, who has 30-plus years of land-use experience, as his agent in the matter.
“Taking a year for a use permit for existing buildings is unacceptable,” Evans lamented. “We’re being held hostage.”
Seals has been a Universal Life Church minister for many years—along with, it should be noted, about 18 million other ULC ministers who have mail-ordered its free, semi-immediate ordination. He said he purchased the land—about 80 acres—for the Goddess Temple around 1980. Even then, when the property was nothing but bare land, he had an idea in mind for a church he would someday like to create.
Success with his inventions—an all-purpose fix-it tool for bicycles and the hugely popular Klean Kanteen—provided him with the funds to turn his dream into a reality, and about 10 years ago he stepped up his efforts to develop the land. In the past two years, he’s worked especially hard to turn the property into a peaceful, inspiring sanctuary that includes a miniature lake, a freshwater pool, rooftop gardens and a yoga platform, a spacious temple with a full kitchen, teepees, a sound-healing room, other small structures, and lots of aesthetically pleasing landscaping, including little streams, waterfalls, and many varieties of flowering plants.
A skilled metalworker, Seals created many metal sculptures that now dot the landscape, such as a large, whimsical lizard on a boulder. A towering goddess statue, another of his creations, greets visitors as they pull into the parking lot in front of the temple.
Recently, the temple hosted a well-attended spiritual-activism event that included talks by Green Transition Chico’s Gerard Ungerman and The Lotus Guide’s Rahasya Poe. But anyone may visit the facility and enjoy the grounds, Seals said. No contact with Seals is necessary—people can just drive up, walk around, and enjoy the land.
“We have many people who come up here just to have a picnic dinner and enjoy the view of the canyon,” he said. “We’re a place that has a kind of organic spirituality. We have all denominations walk in the door, because when you come up here, you bring your religion with you.”
For his part, Seals has attempted to work with his neighbors. About eight weeks ago, for instance, he sent out invitations, asking them to come to a meeting at the temple so they could air their concerns with him. Jack Williams is the only one who showed up at the meeting, and he has nothing but positive comments about Seals, whom he has known since he moved onto Williams’ late father’s property on Santos Ranch Road in 1990.
Williams said Seals puts all of his resources into the community and the environment and that he’s “more than willing to work with anyone.” Three other neighbors contacted by the CN&R declined to be interviewed for this story.
Neighbors have submitted about five different complaints to the Code Enforcement Division of the Butte County Department of Development Services, according to Code Enforcement Officer Roy Wallis. Wallis said the complaints have been about the nature of activities taking place at the Goddess Temple, along with concerns about buildings built on the property without permits.
After investigating the complaints, Wallis turned the matter over to the Planning Division of the Department of Development Services, since zoning issues were involved. The Universal Life Church needs a use permit, Wallis explained, because “each kind of zoning has its own uses.” He added that a use permit could potentially grant exceptions to what is allowed within the present zoning—which is “unclassified” with a strip of “scenic highway,” Evans said.
When Seals completed the necessary paperwork to turn his land into a church, he apparently misinterpreted the Religious Freedom and Land Use Act. Seals said he thought that, as a church, the property was exempt from having to obtain building- and land-use permits. “I didn’t think government could place restrictions on a religious organization, preventing them from assembly.”
Now he realizes his error and is eager to rectify the situation. He is not, however, willing to tolerate any action the county or anyone else might take that would prevent his facility from continuing as a church, and thus he retained the services of Evans, who will represent him in this matter, if needed.
On a recent rainy May afternoon, Seals, Evans, and other interested parties walked the temple grounds with Charles Thistlethwaite, manager of the Planning Division of the county’s Department of Development Services, as he conducted a field visit. Thistlethwaite took photos, discussed with Seals and Evans the various uses of the land and buildings, and explained the process that would ensue in the months ahead. “I’m just getting the lay of the land,” Thistlethwaite said.
Seals emphasized that gatherings are family-oriented: “If children can’t be included in an event,” he said, “we don’t host it.”
After his department issues a draft environmental document that Seals and his neighbors will review, and that will be open for a 30-day period of public review, the matter ultimately will go before the Butte County Planning Commission. “The ultimate decision will come out of the public-hearing process,” Thistlethwaite said.
After the visit ended, Seals talked about his situation.
“At first, I was kind of angry about it,” he said. “I thought they [neighbors and government officials] might be invading our rights. Then I realized, ‘We’re being noticed.’ ” He embraces the opportunity to clarify what the Goddess Temple is all about and to invite people to use it.
“People say they feel good here—they feel centered,” he said, noting he moved to the property because of the peace he found there. “I have to respect that the neighbors want to enjoy that peace, too.”
Evans said Seals is “on the defensive, having to play catch-up.”
Meanwhile, Evans simply wants the county to “get on with it, so we can understand what people’s concerns are and change [have the necessary building and land-use permits in place].” He’s confident the Planning Commission will approve the temple, adding that Seals developed the land “in a manner that is unobtrusive—he’s blending in with the land.”