'Dream camp' or zoning nightmare?

The Register-Guard/July 2, 1999
By Jeff Wright

Springfield -- It won't be the usual friends and guests coming up the driveway this morning to Whitewind and Ben Fisher's 60-acre tree farm in the McKenzie River Valley.

Instead, Lane County Hearings Official Milo Mecham will arrive to assess noise and traffic levels on the hillside property along Upper Camp Creek Road - and he's invited more than a half-dozen of the Fishers' disgruntled neighbors to tag along.

At a zoning hearing last week, neighbors cited a variety of concerns about the Fishers' request for a temporary use permit for a 12-day "World Dream Camp" on their property, which is zoned for exclusive farm use.

But the dispute goes beyond noise and traffic. The larger issue, some neighbors say, is whether the Fishers are operating a home-based business in violation of zoning laws.

Also at play is a clash of values between longtime rural residents and the New-Age brand of healing-arts work practiced by Whitewind Fisher. The Fishers' harshest critics have accused them of operating a cult.

Fisher, 42, is the founder and self-described "shaman" of Friends Landing International Centers for Conscious Living, which conduct a variety of workshops and training sessions. Through dream work, hypnosis, wilderness retreats and other methods, the centers "help people connect with their hearts ... and attend to their own life dreams," Fisher said this week.

Most of the centers' clients are professional therapists and counselors, she said. With the exception of the annual summer retreats, the centers' work is run from an office in downtown Eugene and another in Walnut Creek, Calif., she said.

But some neighbors are skeptical, pointing to the steady flow of traffic - and sounds of chanting and drumming - they say they hear from the Fishers' property.

"I think there's a place on planet Earth for them to do what they're doing, but it needs to be zoned for it," said Barbara Troutt, who lives a mile down the road from the Fishers and has property that adjoins theirs. "They can't come up here with a bulldozer and try to run over us."

The Fishers, however, say they've been unfairly accused and blame their woes on a...California dentist who objects to his son's relationship with the Fishers. [The dentist's] son...lives on the Fishers' property and is employed as a "dream coach apprentice" who also leads wilderness quests for Friends Landing.

[The father] said he's estranged from his son, who he believes is under Whitewind Fisher's undue influence. [The father] last year hired a cult "deprogrammer" in an unsuccessful effort to persuade his son to leave Friends Landing.

[The son], a 22-year-old who earned his psychology degree from the University of Oregon this spring, has said he's making his own life choices freely.

"I'm healthy, I'm safe, I'm happy," he said in an earlier interview. "I'm succeeding in school and in life, and I'd think that's the thing (a parent) would want to see in a child."

[The father] was the first to alert county officials to potential zoning problems at the Fishers' residence. But his larger motive, he said, is to win back his son. "Everything I do is in the interest of protecting him," he said.

Whitewind Fisher said she began offering summer retreats on the property three years ago and didn't realize she needed a permit to do so. Until now, no neighbors have ever complained, she said.

Fisher said the camps make use of an outdoor setting to promote meditation, stress reduction, personal awareness and relationship-building. This year's camp, originally scheduled to begin July 12, has been postponed until at least the end of the month, she said.

Hearings official Mecham has until Tuesday to issue an initial ruling on the Fishers' request for a temporary permit, and neighbors and the Fishers have until July 26 to appeal, said Thom Lanfear, an associate planner with the county.

The summer camps have typically attracted about 20 people, Fisher said. The cost of the camp, according to Friends Landing's Web site, is $1,750 per person.

In a written report, Lanfear said the camp may violate a requirement that prohibits temporary permits for events involving new structures valued at more than $1,000. The Fishers indicated in their application that most attendees will camp in tents, and three portable toilets would be brought onto the premises.

Also, some attendees might sleep, prepare food or use the bathroom in the property's main residence, the Fishers said in their application. Their property also includes a double-wide mobile home and agricultural building.

The property was purchased by Whitewind Fisher's mother, Barbara Kilborne, in 1995. Fisher said 11 people live on the premises, including her three teen-age children and another teen. Her mother and [the California dentist's son] live in the mobile home, she said.

The Fishers call the place Paulownia Farms, where they are growing paulownia and bamboo trees.

Some neighbors have complained of chanting and drumming on the property. At today's on-site review, Mecham is expected to request a staged drumming and then go to neighbors' properties and listen.

Fisher said she'll be happy to oblige such a request. "We're just going to pray and chant and play our drums," she said. "It's going to be interesting."



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