Falun Gong U.S. com­pound’s neigh­bors fret over ex­pan­sion

The News-Times - - FROM THE FRONT PAGE -

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.

Julie Ja­cob­son / As­so­ci­ated Press

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.

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