The mailbox in front of the World Peace and Health Organization Buddhist temple is empty — as it has been for months — except for an impressive cobweb inside.
A few feet away, the access road leading to Shrine Road is blocked by a newly installed, 8-foot solid vinyl fence, separating the temple from the Catholic Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs, not to mention mail service and emergency responders.
Last year and again this summer the shrine barricaded an interior road leading to the temple, blocking access from Shrine Road. This summer, Rev. George H. Belgarde, the shrine’s director, told a mail carrier to stop using shrine access roads to deliver mail to the temple, according to a recently filed lawsuit.
The only way mail or emergency responders can get to the Chinese temple is an unmarked driveway off a secondary road — a portion of which was cut off by the fence because it cut across shrine property.
WPHO maintains in legal papers that it had a previous verbal agreement with the former director of the shrine to build a portion of the road’s entrance across a 10-foot parcel of shrine property.
The address, 174 Shrine Road, exists only theoretically now — at least as far as mail delivery and emergency responders are concerned. The WPHO is attempting to set up a temporary address — 174 Friendship Road (now the driveway) — for mail and emergency responders.
The fence, the latest barrier erected by the shrine, was put up without warning, say those at the temple. It is another salvo in growing tension and acrimony between two neighboring religious institutions designed to draw pilgrims to the otherwise peaceful hills of Montgomery County.
“We understand they want us to leave this place,” said Jennie Wong, who serves as the spokeswoman for WPHO. “We don’t intend to leave this place.”
Construction of Friendship Road off Ripley Road was halted for now by order of Montgomery County Court Judge Felix Cantina after a lawsuit filed by WPHO, which seeks to have a portion of the fence blocking mail and emergency responders removed, as well as egress restored for traffic from Shrine Road.
“The argument they are using is there was an easement by implication,” said the temple’s attorney, Sarah J. Green of Schenectady. “Shrine Road has been used the last 100 years to access the property.”
However, the Buddhists agreed to build their own road when they bought the former retreat house from the shrine in 2006. Construction on the road was halted by Belgarde, however, citing the portion that is on shrine property.
Temple representatives countered that by cutting off a section at the entrance that crosses shrine property, trucks will not be able to navigate a turn onto temple property, rendering the temple landlocked.
The fence, more than 1,000 feet long, was erected as the shrine is in the midst of a $1 million fund drive.
“Never in the history of this Shrine … the birthplace of St. Kateri Tekakwitha … have we ever faced such a financial crisis that could close the doors of The Shrine,” its website states.
The barrier is physical and symbolic. Leaders of the Buddhist group say they have reached out to Belgarde, with no results, prompting legal action.
“He never replies,” Wong said. “We have never had one conversation since he got here.”
Green said one sitdown meeting was scuttled at the last minute because the priest thought the Buddhists had brought too many representatives.
The Buddhist group purchased the Jesuit Retreat House and converted it into the Western Supreme Buddha Temple. The group used Shrine Road to access the temple until 2013, shortly after Belgarde became director, when a barricade was erected to block access to the portion of the road leading to the temple.
At the same time, numerous signs were placed on shrine property saying “NO DOGS” — which the Chinese Buddhists take as a racial slur directed at them.
“It is very humiliating,” Wong said.
“He has gone out of his way to antagonize them,” Green said.
A permanent barricade was put up this summer, and a portion of the road leading to the temple was torn up. In September, another access road was fenced off.
Belgarde, approached this week outside his office, said he was “blocked” from speaking about the dispute and referred questions to the shrine’s attorney, Carmel Greco. Repeated messages left for Greco throughout the week were not returned.
Greco previously explained the part of the road that has been blocked is on shrine property and was never built for heavy traffic.
“It is a private driveway, and therefore, the shrine has every right to do whatever it sees fit to do on its own property,” he said.
Catena, the county judge, is expected to rule later this month on the lawsuit. Green said there is a potential compromise that would involve opening Shrine Road for mail, emergency and pedestrian traffic, as well as allowing for the completion of Friendship Road.