A Buddhist congregation, ordered a year ago to stop worshiping at a temple here because it operated in violation of zoning laws, is leaving Howard County because "the harassment just got too out of hand," a temple spokesman said last week.
"You don't stay where you are not wanted," said Howard Killian, spokesman for the largely Korean congregation of more than 100. The group was ordered to stop holding services in a house on three acres it purchased on Pindell School Road, just outside Columbia.
Since the zoning decision, Killian said, the temple has been vandalized repeatedly. Windows and lights have been shot out, the mailbox has been stolen several times, cars have been driven across the lawn, and tires of cars parked at the temple have been punctured, he said.
A Howard County police spokesman said the department has received several reports of vandalism at the temple.
"We have been harassed tremendously. . . . In a sense, they ran us out of the neighborhood," said Killian.
Two weeks ago, the City of Baltimore sold the congregation an abandoned Lutheran church near the Inner Harbor for $10. The congregation plans to reopen its temple there in the spring after a $200,000 renovation is completed.
Howard County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray said he was not aware of vandalism at the temple, but called the incidents "very unfortunate."
"When you have a minority religion move into a community, they're sometimes subject to harassment," he said.
"I regret that something like this happened because we would like to think in this county we are open to anyone who wants to come here," he said.
The congregation, which operates under the name Hae In Sa Buddhist Inc., moved to Howard County in 1981, when it purchased the Pindell School Road house, converted it to a temple and living quarters for a Buddhist monk, and began holding services there.
Nearby residents began complaining about traffic congestion and inadequate parking. They claimed the house was unsuited for a temple because its driveway was obscured by a small hill, creating a hazard for drivers on Pindell School Road. Neighbors also said they were bothered by noise from the temple, including the sound of gongs.
More than 100 residents signed a petition in opposition to the temple, according to county records.
The county Planning Board heard the complaints and last year refused to grant the congregation a special exception to a county law that would have allowed it to operate the temple in a residential zone. The board ruled that "dangerous traffic and access problems appeared to exist and the type of activity requested is unsuitable for the location."
The congregation then filed a petition for the special exception with the county Board of Appeals, but the action was dismissed at the request of the congregation's lawyers before the board ruled on the issue, said Robert V.L. Sharp, a member of the Board of Appeals.
"I have vandalism up here, too, but I don't call that harassment until I find out who's doing it and why they're doing it," said Sharp, who lives in a rural part of the county.
During the past year, while searching for a new home, the congregation has not held services, but individual members have been invited to the Pindell School Road temple to visit the monk, Lee Pom Ju, who still lives there, said Killian.
Killian, an American who is married to a Korean, said about 50,000 Koreans live in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area. The only other Buddhist temple, he said, is located in Montgomery County.
The congregation hopes to turn the abandoned Baltimore church into a Korean cultural center that will attract tourists and plans to open a school and perhaps a nursing home as well, the Killian said. Lee is an accomplished artist and his works will be displayed in the new temple, along with a gold-plated statue of Buddha, Killian said.
"It's really turned out great for us," he said. "Our new neighborhood gave us full cooperation. They welcomed us."