Yuba County gives secretive group belated approval for amphitheater

Sacramento Bee/February 1, 2005
By Tom Nadeau

Marysville - A Monday deadline passed for public objection to a 1,443-seat amphitheater built without a permit by a secretive group headquartered in the Yuba County foothills.

With no appeal to or by the county supervisors, a conditional-use permit granted Jan. 19 by the county Planning Commission for the Fellowship of Friends' $2.2 million amphitheater will become permanent, officials said.

No one had filed an appeal to the project by the Monday deadline, said Donna Stottlemeyer, clerk to the Board of Supervisors.

County officials said it was not the first time the tax-exempt fellowship has done major construction without a permit, in violation of county building laws, only to get approval after the fact.

Building inspectors did not learn of the imposing Greek-style structure on the group's property off Rice Crossing Road in Oregon House, until a neighbor pointed it out last June.

"I don't feel very good about it, but it's there," said Margaret Winchel, a planning commissioner.

"I'm very unhappy with this," said Supervisor Hal Stocker, whose district includes the Fellowship headquarters. "The Fellowship has said they want to improve relations with the community. They've done the opposite with this. They've shot themselves in the foot."

"It would have taken six to eight months to build," Martin Griffin, the county's chief building inspector, estimated.

"We went through this when they put an addition on the lodge up there," he added.

Griffin said the Planning Commission levied a $38,000 penalty, about double what the group initially would have been assessed for permits.

Representing the Fellowship of Friends at the planning hearing were architect Charles Frank and attorney Abraham Goldman.

Goldman admitted Monday that even before it started "the Fellowship knew what the county required," referring to the neglected permit.

He excused the lapse, however, saying the group wanted to see how much of the ambitious project could be financially accomplished before beginning the permit process.

"It was a struggle," he said.

The Fellowship of Friends regards itself as a religio-philosophical entity in the tradition of Gurdjieff-Ouspensy, two Russian thinkers. The secretive group, founded in 1970 by a Bay Area teacher named Robert Earl Burton, bought the Yuba County location in 1971.

About 600 to 700 people live at the 2-square-mile Apollo, as the guarded Oregon House site is called.

Fellowship holdings include the Renaissance Winery and considerable artworks. Its exact membership is unknown, but previously published and voiced figures put the number at more than 2,000 worldwide.

Griffin said industrial traffic would not be unusual along roads near the Fellowship's grounds. Otherwise, county officials cannot explain how the limestone blocks, craftsmen, tools, equipment and accompanying trucks could come and go unnoticed on the narrow rural road.

The notion that Fellowship representatives did not know a permit was needed is "kind of far-fetched," said Greg Crompton, chairman of the Dobbins-Oregon House Action Committee. "But you can't just ask them to take it out."

In addition to the permit violation, the committee's chief said he is worried about increased traffic on the narrow, curvy country roads and evacuation problems in the event of a fire.

A cursory inspection was made before the issue went before the planning board.

Supervisor Stocker said he would like the county to tighten the permit process to promote planning and to discourage after-the-fact permits.

"The punishment doesn't fit the crime," he said. "We're going to fix that."

In 2002, the Associated Press reported that the Fellowship had fought with county officials over taxes and been sued by former members, some of whom described the group as a cult.

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