Falun Gong U.S. compound’s neighbors fret over expansion
DEERPARK, N.Y. — Falun Gong practitioners found a peaceful refuge in the forested hills of upstate New York after their group was banned in China. Over the years, they built up a compound with a traditional Chinese temple, schools, and rehearsal space for their high-flying, globetrotting dance troupe, Shen Yun.
But the steady growth of Falun Gong's Dragon Springs complex has caused a rift with their neighbors, who worry about its effect on the area's environment and rural character. A new proposal that could add more people, more buildings and more visitors has only added to the tension.
“We enjoy peace and quiet — until Dragon Springs moved in,” neighbor Dusanka Marusic said at a packed public hearing on the proposal this month. “We are either unwilling or unable to control what goes on there, and it jeopardizes everyone.”
Practitioners of Falun Gong, also called Falun Dafa, say they just want to coexist peacefully. But members in the past have said they were discriminated against by town officials based on their race and beliefs, which include traditional Chinese calisthenics and philosophy drawn from Buddhism, Taoism and the often-unorthodox teachings of founder Li Hongzhi.
Dragon Springs sits on 400 acres about an hour's drive northwest of New York City. The tax-exempt religious site was acquired in 2000, just a year after the Chinese government officially banned Falun Gong. China says it is an evil cult.
Practitioners have long said that the cult label is propaganda and that they have been politically persecuted in China.
After years of additions, the lakeside site features Tang Dynasty-style buildings along with modern, boxy buildings that would fit into a contemporary office park. Dragon Springs said 100 people, mostly students, live there. Few others get to set foot on the property, which sits deep in the woods behind guarded gates.
Now they're asking for an expansion that would include a 920-seat music hall that, along with other public areas on the site, could generate up to 2,000 visitors a day, according to environmental impact filings. They're also seeking a new parking garage, a wastewater treatment plant, and conversion of a meditation hall to a residence hall. Under the proposal, the entire site would be able to accommodate 500 residents.
But critics say the problem is that Dragon Springs has flouted environmental and land-use regulations for years, sometimes building first and asking permission later. And they say it has grown far beyond what was initially described as a modest refuge.
This March 8 photo shows the Falun Gong Dragon Springs compound in Otisville, N.Y. After years of additions, the lakeside site features Tang Dynasty-style buildings close by modern, boxy buildings that would fit into a contemporary office park. Dragon Springs said 100 people, mostly students, live there.