Goodbye, Goddess Temple

County supervisors vote to deny church’s use permit

Robert Seals reacts to the board’s decision.

Robert Seals reacts to the board’s decision.

Photo By Ken SMith

To the Rev. Robert Seals and a number of like-minded individuals, the Chico Goddess Temple—an 80-acre property off Highway 32 near Forest Ranch—is sacred land. As of this week, Butte County officially disagrees.

The Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 on Tuesday, July 31, to deny a request by Seals and his chapter of the Universal Life Church to use the land as a church and public facility, citing a history of noise complaints from neighbors and the fact that many of the sanctuary’s buildings—which include a 1,600-square-foot assembly area, teepees, sound-therapy rooms, two single-family residences, a pond and a pool—were built without proper permits. (The county Planning Commission denied Seals a use permit back in May, which decision he appealed to the board.)

The vote came after the supervisors listened to more than three hours of public commentary, mostly asking the panel to work with Seals to get the facilities up to code. Seals addressed the supervisors, acknowledging he had made mistakes but hoped to fix them in order to save the temple, which is built on land he’s owned for about 30 years and has cost him $4 million to build.

After dozens of speakers, including temple employees and residents, pleaded with the board, about a half-dozen temple neighbors spoke against granting the permit.

“There is a loud and constant noise from the property through events,” contested neighbor Laura Joplin, who happens to be the sister of the late, great ’60s singer Janis Joplin. “If the number of events are approved, there could be 200 people there most every weekend.”

Joplin explained that Seals’ property sits at the bottom of a valley, causing a megaphone effect that makes the noise at her and other properties above it unbearable. She also claimed the temple’s location ruined her opportunity to sell her property, and that Seals and his fellow devotees have been all-around bad neighbors.

“In my interactions with the applicant and the people who work for him, they have used intimidation and dishonesty to try to stop me from complaining. The first time I asked [Seals] what he was doing with this facility, he leaned in within two inches of me and started screaming that it’s a church and he could do anything he wanted to, and there was a nonprofit in San Francisco that would back him up and take it all the way.”

She said Seals also claimed the buildings and other structures were permitted.

At one point, Maureen Kirk—the only supervisor who actually visited the premises—motioned to give the temple a limited use permit, contingent on Seals’ efforts to bring everything up to code, obtain overdue permits and work on noise abatement for the adjoining properties. But that motion was defeated 3-2, with Bill Connelly siding with Kirk.

“I’m a firm believer in freedom of religion, and I don’t want to put the board in a situation where we are seen to shut down somebody’s place of worship,” Connelly said.

Supervisor Kim Yamaguchi explained he voted no because he felt granting a non-conforming-use permit was “180 degrees” against the newly adopted general plan. Both he and Supervisor Larry Wahl, who motioned to deny the permit, were outspoken in their criticism of Seals.

“It would be ludicrous to give this outfit permission to do what they want to do,” Wahl said, “in addition to the fact that they’re depriving their neighbors of their quiet enjoyment of their own property in a residential neighborhood.”

After the ruling, Seals, surrounded by a group of supporters, expressed his anger.

“This county will be really embarrassed when they see the repercussions of this one; this will be national news,” he said. “They just denied a religious facility. That’s against the law, especially when we’re standing here saying we will comply in every way.”

Seals, who now lives in Santa Cruz, was unsure whether to take flight or fight. He alleged Brown Act violations by members of the board, claiming they met with neighbors and other government departments at “secret meetings where the agenda was to shut down the Goddess Temple,” and said he had an attorney preparing a case but wasn’t sure if he wanted to use the time and money.

“I might just go home right now, grab a 20-ton forklift, uproot the 20-foot Goddess [statue], and she can go on my property alongside Highway 32. I’m going to plant that there, and these people can look at it the rest of their life, and then I’m gone. I’m done with Butte County.”