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UPDATE: Three Rivers council votes against Buddhist residence

The Great Wisdom Buddhist Institute in Brudenell.
The Great Wisdom Buddhist Institute in Brudenell. - Daniel Brown/Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

THREE RIVERS, P.E.I. — After about two and a half hours of back-and-forth debate on the P.E.I. Buddhist community's proposed new residence in Brudenell, council's ultimate decision to deny it was met with silence.

Members of the public immediately started to trickle out after seven councillors voted against approving a construction permit for the Great Wisdom Buddhist Institute (GWBI) and three voted to approve it.

More than 150 people attended the Sept. 14 meeting at the Cavendish Farms Wellness Centre in Montague, with social distancing measures in effect. One group of 50 sat in the same room as the councillors; another group watched it live-streamed from the main floor of the building. A third group of about 60 people remained parked in their vehicles outside.

Following the vote, Mayor Edward MacAulay said discussion on the matter over the past few weeks has been stressful. He was disappointed for the GWBI but pleased that so many members of the public became engaged with the discussion. 

"It's bigger than just the permit," he said. "I think that's the issue that we're seeing."

Three Rivers mayor Edward MacAulay spoke during a regular council meeting at the Cavendish Farms Wellness Centre in Montague on Sept. 14 - Daniel Brown/Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Three Rivers mayor Edward MacAulay spoke during a regular council meeting at the Cavendish Farms Wellness Centre in Montague on Sept. 14 - Daniel Brown/Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The residence was to be part of the GWBI's ongoing development – a multi-building campus facility that could one day house up to 1,400 Buddhist nuns.

Also attending the meeting were representatives of Nine Yards Studio, the Charlottetown-based architecture firm helping to design the residence, as well as a few nuns with GWBI. One of them, Venerable Yvonne Tsai, addressed the public during the meeting, stating that the GWBI understands their concerns.

"It seems that we are causing a lot of trouble," she said, laughing. "(And) we can see how much you care about the future of our generations."


BACKGROUND:

• The Great Wisdom Buddhist Institute had applied for a permit to construct a two-storey residence building (plus basement) in Brudenell that would house up to 176 people.
• Its estimated value is about $8 million.
• Its gross floor area is about 5,900 square metres, according to the development application obtained by The Guardian.
• The application, which was recommended by Three Rivers' planning board, was brought forward during a council meeting on Aug. 24. 
• The decision was tabled due to councillors' concerns until Aug. 31, then tabled again until Sept. 14 due in part to the public's concerns.


Larry Creed, a Three Rivers resident who helped rally the public to attend, told The Guardian the concerns weren't to do with the Buddhist community itself.

"We embraced them when they came here," he said. "Diversity is marvelous."

Rather, their concerns were toward a lack of transparency on the process within Three Rivers following its 2018 amalgamation, as well as on the amount of property that the GWBI has attained.

On top of its development on Brudenell Point Road, the GWBI has about 500 nuns living in houses in other areas, such as Vernon Bridge, Tsai said.

She noted this was due to a lack of available accommodations, and once their development has a residence building they could consider whether to sell the houses or hang onto them.

Creed simply desired more transparency as he's worried about how a shortage in land might impact the area's future generations. 

"Are they going to be able to afford to live here?" Creed said.

Three Rivers' resident Larry Creed helped rally the public to attend the municipality's regular council meeting in Montague on Sept. 14. - Daniel Brown/Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Three Rivers' resident Larry Creed helped rally the public to attend the municipality's regular council meeting in Montague on Sept. 14. - Daniel Brown/Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

During the meeting, Three Rivers' residents spoke in support of and against the development.

"I believe approval will be good for our community," resident Joseph Spriet said, "to make new friends and be an open community."


AT A GLANCE:

Up to this point, over 100 Islanders have been employed throughout the Great Wisdom Buddhist Institute's (GWBI) construction, Venerable Yvonne Tsai said.

About 96 per cent of the materials needed were sourced on P.E.I., and the GWBI spent about $10 million on the development in 2019 alone. The GWBI's income is entirely donation-based, and only its prayer hall buildings in Brudenell and Uigg are exempt from paying taxes – the rest are taxed as an institution, she said.


Resident Janice MacBeth said that while the GWBI had put together a 2018 master plan on its 10-year phased development, she wanted Three Rivers to have an independent study conducted.

"There's no rush for development," she said. "We are not talking about a small shed in Cardigan."

As well, she noted, the young municipality still doesn't have an official plan to help outline its long-term vision. Work on the plan was supposed to have started by now but has been delayed due to COVID-19, MacAulay said.

Three Rivers resident Janice MacBeth speaks during a regular council meeting in Montague on Sept. 14. - Daniel Brown/Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Three Rivers resident Janice MacBeth speaks during a regular council meeting in Montague on Sept. 14. - Daniel Brown/Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

By the time councillors began discussing the topic, more technicalities arose. Coun. Cody Jenkins said the original application recommended by Three Rivers' planning board contained incorrect information, namely the property's address and provincial PID number.

The corrected application was approved by a planning staff member but not by the board, as is the standard process. As well, a few councillors pointed out that concerns over potential breaches in P.E.I.'s Land Protection Act should be addressed with the provincial government. 

"(Because) we've had no conversation with the province at all," Coun. John MacFarlane said.

Venerable Yvonne Tsai, a Buddhist nun with the Great Wisdom Buddhist Institute, spoke during a regular council meeting in Montague on Sept. 14. - Daniel Brown/Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Venerable Yvonne Tsai, a Buddhist nun with the Great Wisdom Buddhist Institute, spoke during a regular council meeting in Montague on Sept. 14. - Daniel Brown/Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Coun. Gerard Holland mentioned three criteria council could consider before approving the permit: having conversations with the province on land use; completing Three Rivers' official plan and having more consultations with the public. 

"Obviously, the community does not have a good feeling about this," he said.

A standing vote was eventually called, and the permit was denied. MacAulay doesn't believe it resolves the larger issue and expects the GWBI will be exploring its options, which could include appealing the decision, he said.

"We're not taking over the Island."
- Venerable Yvonne Tsai

Following the meeting, Tsai said the night's decision helped her understand the fear people may have toward their development and that it's likely to be just the beginning of a larger discussion.

"We're just human beings like everyone else," she said. "We're not taking over the Island."

Daniel Brown is a local journalism initiative reporter, a position funded by the federal government.

Twitter.com/dnlbrown95

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