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No Laughing Buddha: Neighbors clash over meditation center

Marcie Wagner shows the pole shed she hopes to renovate for a meditation center. She suspended the work after neighbors opposed her plan, saying they fear the center will overwhelm their narrow residential roads near Lobster Lake and bring in addicts and the mentally ill. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)1 / 3
The previous owners of Marcie Wagner's property shot skeet on the land. She was surprised when neighbors opposed her plans to open a small meditation center there. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)2 / 3
A planning commission decision against Laughing Buddha Meditation Centre near Lobster Lake drew applause from those who do not want the center in their neighborhood. In foreground, friend Carol Wenner comforts Marcie Wagner, left, who had hoped to teach meditation classes on property she recently purchased. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)3 / 3

Marcie Wagner thought she had found the perfect place in the woods to establish a meditation center. Her neighbors are fighting it, citing concerns about traffic and future businesses and that the center might bring in addicts, the mentally ill and former inmates.

The Douglas County Planning Commission weighed in Tuesday night, voting 4-2 against her request to offer mindfulness classes and weekend retreats on a small pond near Lobster Lake. It was also opposed by Moe Township.

Their recommendation now goes to the Douglas County Board, which will have the final say at its Tuesday, April 16 meeting.

Opposition strong

The issue has been so contentious that Wagner said after the meeting that living in the neighborhood has been "brutal," and residents won't return her waves.

"Their anger is at a scale that does not match this project, 12 people meditating on a Sunday," she said.

While the Laughing Buddha Meditation Centre will work at other facilities in Alexandria with those struggling with addiction and mental illness, she said that she won't bring them out to the center, which is also her home. She is not, she said, going to bring clients out "who are at-risk and dangerous."

A hearing before the vote on Wagner's conditional use permit drew an overflow crowd to the small county commissioner's room, as neighbors contended that their narrow roads were not suited for a business of any sort. The road had been bulldozed through by a developer, according to a township official, and had been recently paved with no shoulder. Already, pedestrians and motorists often meet abruptly on its curves and hills.

Wagner bought the property in February and hoped to hold an open house in May. Amanda Topel, who lives next door, discovered that Wagner wanted to open the center and alerted other neighbors.

Topel and her husband, Matt, said they previously lived in a neighborhood in a different county that had been torn apart by a new business and did not want to live through it again.

They deliberately sought out a dead-end road, moved there three years ago and built a house they plan to live in the rest of their lives. It's a place where their four young girls can ride bicycles and play in the woods.

"There's no way in the world we would have built next to a business," Matt Topel said.

They pointed to Wagner's business plan, which indicates she wants to serve vulnerable populations such as the elderly, disabled, addicted, incarcerated, recently-released prisoners, mentally ill, immigrants, homeless, low-income, children and young families, the spiritual/faith community, military and public safety workers.

Some of those clients might threaten their daughters, they said.

The previous owners of Wagner's property shot skeet on the land, but the Topels said that was different.

"They were very aware of our girls," Amanda Topel said, while her husband added that they also shoot guns. "If it's done mindfully and you know your target, there's no problem."

Wagner said she felt neighbors understood that her troubled clients would not be coming out to their neighborhood and was surprised to hear it coming up again Tuesday evening.

Many neighbors said they were not opposed to meditation itself.

"I'm sure it's a wonderful project," said one neighbor. "We just don't need this in a residential area."

Others agreed.

"I'm a firm believer in the benefits of meditation," said Julie Howe, who operates a home-based pet boarding business. "I think there is a better location for her."

Wagner had wanted to teach three to four classes a week at the site, with up to 12 students at a time, as well as four-day silent retreats once a month from May to September. She would teach mindful living, mindful eating, silent meditation and mindfulness for stress reduction.

Douglas County has received 20 letters supporting the center and 45 letters against it, said Dave Rush, county land and resource director.

"People will be sleeping in the woods, unmonitored, surely roaming on other peoples properties," wrote Ron and Linda Dolan, who live on an adjoining road. "Child molesters, sex offenders as well as other criminal aspects are encouraged to participate."

Wagner's supporters also spoke up at the meeting and wrote letters on her behalf.

"I am completely shocked to read that neighbors are worried about the type of person who meditates," wrote Amy Allen of Alexandria. "The type of person who meditates is self‐aware, intelligent and usually has very high E.Q (emotional intelligence)."

She described herself as 55 years old, a mother of four children and an executive director of a foundation.

"I don't party, I rarely drink and I'm very responsible," she wrote. "I am willing to meet the neighbors who are scared and let them know who I am. I'm far from someone they would be

afraid of."

Planning Commission members voting against Wagner's request were Keith Englund, Jeff Oberg, Jerry Johnson and Dan New. Voting in favor were Brian Niehoff and Les Zimmerman.

Some neighbors said they plan to attend Tuesday's county commission meeting. The Topels said the whole issue has cost them sleep.

"I will relax when it's final next Tuesday," Amanda Topel said.