Temple is doomed?
Robert Seals fights to keep his beloved Chico Goddess Temple open
“Time is the only commodity,” Robert Seals philosophized during a recent phone interview. “I always take the shortcut to save the most amount of time for pleasurable and spiritual things. I am guilty of that.”
The local musician, artist, inventor, entrepreneur and reverend is also admittedly guilty of having hosted a wild celebration called Earthdance at his Chico Goddess Temple four years ago, and doing so without a proper permit, a mistake that has cost him plenty of time and money since.
Seals is a bit of a local legend for his exploits, including making a 12-foot, 2,000-pound metal sculpture of a mushroom cloud overlaid with an embryo to protest nuclear power, inventing a multi-purpose bike gadget (the Cool Tool), patenting the increasingly popular Klean Kanteen reusable bottle brand, crucifying himself (sans nails) on Chico State’s campus in the 1960s, and twice racing a horse on foot through Lower Bidwell Park, to name a few.
These days, Seals is fighting for the building and use permits he lacked in 2008, when a group of his neighbors filed a complaint with Butte County officials following the music festival. After several years of attempting to address the county’s requirements—and about $60,000 spent on legal counsel and $200,000 on building upgrades—Seals faces the possibility the temple will be shut down.
At this point, he is convinced the issue has escalated into the realm of religious freedom.
“They still haven’t provided a reason why we were rejected,” he said. “I hope it’s not because we’re a different spiritual organization, but that’s all that’s left. Our wishes and prayers are that the Board of Supervisors will reverse some of these decisions that, frankly, weren’t legal.”
During a recent CN&R tour of the Goddess Temple, an 80-acre parcel dedicated to “worship of motherhood and the feminine” just off Highway 32 toward Forest Ranch, one could imagine how disruptive a music festival with 500 attendees would be for the area’s homeowners. Only the occasional passing car on the highway and the intermittent beating of tribal drums from the temple’s children’s camp broke the silence.
The property is an oasis amid an arid, brush-filled hillside. Straddling the entrance is a huge metal sculpture of the Goddess, which leads to a series of solid, earthy cabins made of repurposed material. A fountain streaming from a smaller Goddess statue’s nether regions supplies a lush, reed-filled pond teeming with colorful koi fish. Nearby is a crystal-clear, chemical-free swimming pool, a rooftop garden and a giant teepee for the boys at the children’s camp. There are quirks at every turn—Seals designed one set of stairs wider than a typical stride, forcing visitors to walk purposefully in order to appreciate the view of the canyon.
There are two neighbors’ houses within eyesight of the temple, both about 500 feet away, and three more houses on the other side of a steep ridge, all more than 1,000 feet away, Seals said. Lanai Winter, the temple’s property manager and events supervisor, considers their neighbors’ initial complaints justified.
“They got mad about the noise level that one time, and they had something to be mad about,” she said, referring to the Earthdance festival. “It was an open event, and some people, I think, were disrespectful to the property and the neighbors.”
But Seals speculates the festival blew the lid off a bigger issue.
“I think some of the neighbors were unhappy with the facility, but not because of our activities,” he said. “This is nothing new, worship of the Goddess, but it goes up against a lot of fundamental religions. They might say, ‘It’s a cult, it’s different, it’s wrong and it’s not going to happen in my neighborhood.’ But we weren’t hearing any of that until this event.”
Shortly after the neighbors rallied against the temple, a field inspector came and served Seals a notice that he was in violation of operating without a use permit. Seals believes that action broke federal law, citing the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, passed in 2000, which states, “No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution.”
Nevertheless, with his neighbors calling for the county to shut down the temple, Seals began seeking a permit. Wanting desperately to save the buildings on the property—in which he says he has personally invested about $4 million—he made efforts to show the county he was willing to meet their specifications and carry them out quickly.
Seals hired contractors to inspect the buildings, ultimately spending about $200,000 on earthquake retrofitting and electric and plumbing upgrades.
“We had to resolve the building permit to work toward the use permit for a spiritual organization,” he explained. “We had most of the work done, and it was time for them to come through and check everything, so we started calling them over two years ago. The answer, repeatedly, was that they wouldn’t inspect the buildings until we got a use permit.”
Furthering his frustration, Seals was granted a hearing before the Butte County Planning Commission on April 26, during which his neighbors testified and his representatives were not allowed a rebuttal. The matter was continued to May 10, when the commission voted to deny the use permit.
Tim Snellings, director of Butte County’s Department of Development Services, explained the commission’s decision.
“There were concerns about the church’s compatibility with surrounding rural residences out there, concerns about noise and nuisance issues from past church-sponsored events like trespassing, littering and lack of sanitary facilities,” he said. “The Planning Commission is required to find the use is compatible with surrounding properties and doesn’t impose an undo burden on them. The commission didn’t make those findings.”
Seals has appealed the decision, and the Butte County Board of Supervisors will vote on the issue during its meeting on July 31 in Oroville. He urges those who have enjoyed the temple’s peaceful grounds to attend the meeting or email the board in support. Otherwise, time will be short for the Chico Goddess Temple.
“If we lose this, the temple will be torn down,” Seals said.