Eugene Weekly : News : 3.15.07

In Hot Water Over Graywater
Popular Dharmalaya runs afoul of city codes

Richard Heinberg, a well-known researcher from New College of California, was introduced by the mayor of Eugene when he spoke to hundreds of people about peak oil at the Eugene Hilton in January 2006. After his speech, he did not retire to one of the many bedrooms available on site. Instead, he crashed on the couch at Dharmalaya, a yoga studio in north Eugene that is now in trouble for violating land use codes and building without proper permits.

Dharmalaya founders Michele Renee and Ron Logan

In 2002, Michele Renee and Ron Logan (known to students as Acharya Ravi) acquired a lot at 356 Horn Lane that would have been big enough to hold a five-house subdivision. Instead, they used it to build Dharmalaya, which has hosted educational workshops, concerts and various community events in its River Road neighborhood in addition to its primary purpose as a yoga and meditation studio.

The main structure bears the handprints of some of the 250-plus volunteers who helped with construction. To minimize the impact on the environment, Dharmalaya was built as much as possible with local materials. The surrounding yard has many kinds of fruit trees and has attracted a greater variety of wild birds and animals than was previously present.

“People come and they feel this sense of wholesome abundance,” Logan said. “You can see why it became popular. Now it’s come to a place where the popularity is in jeopardy.”

Trouble began when an anonymous complaint was made to the city of Eugene regarding construction without a permit and improper land use for a residential neighborhood.

Because of the high level of use, which came to include overnight guests, Logan and Renee had built a bathhouse for Dharmalaya. The bathhouse includes three composting toilets and two showers with a graywater system. The system pumps used water from the showers through the root systems of marsh plants, where microbes purify the water. The water then drains into a backyard pond.

“We understood there would not be provisions in the building code for that, so we made the difficult choice to build it without seeking a building permit,” Logan said.

Mike McKerrow, land use management supervisor for the city of Eugene, said the city reviewed the complaint in August 2006 and then inspected the property. They asked Renee and Logan to submit a zoning verification letter describing uses of the property. After city employees received the letter in October, they determined that Dharmalaya was, within the language of zoning ordinances, most similar to a neighborhood activity center and requires a conditional use permit to operate in its residential neighborhood.

“It would be a lot less work, but I can’t imagine this being a private residence,” Renee said. “It doesn’t feel like it belongs to us. Hopefully it will be able to live out its dharma and its destiny.”

Some business operations, such as software designers working from home, are allowed in residential neighborhoods, but those are limited to operations that do not create traffic or require off-street parking, McKerrow added.

“They’ve had about 7,000 visitors over the past four years,” McKerrow said. “That kind of exceeds the home occupation standard.”

Currently, the center is identified as in violation of city codes.

“It was illegal for Richard Heinberg to be here sleeping on this couch,” Logan said.

Aside from running Dharmalaya, Renee works as a substitute teacher in Eugene public schools, and Logan has some income from teaching meditation. However, they said the cost of the permits exceeds their annual income.

The cost of the building permit is unknown, and fees double for retroactive building permits. The conditional use permit would cost $16,797 given the property’s current status as an unincorporated area of Lane County. If the owners chose to become incorporated by the city of Eugene, which they are considering, they would pay $6,000, plus a $1,600 annexation fee and increased taxes. Additional expenses include consulting fees and possibly a traffic impact analysis, Renee and Logan said.

Donations from supporters as far away as Finland have helped Dharmalaya deal with its funding problems. A Feb. 3 benefit event at the Fenario Gallery in downtown Eugene raised a total of about $2,000, including some donations made before and after the event, and Renee said there would be a second benefit event at the Fenario Gallery on May 5.

Logan said there would also eventually be a public hearing on the issue where community members can share their opinions with the city.

“Yes, we didn’t go through the processes that are set up by society for construction,” Logan said. “The reason was not that we wanted to avoid building permit fees or to get away with building a structure that was not well designed. … The reason it happened was that we feel we are trying to design to a higher standard than is in the Oregon building code.”

He added that while the building code monitors the height of stair steps and the spacing of fence slats to avoid accidents, it ignores bigger issues such as building with materials that contain harmful chemicals and use large amounts of fossil fuels to be produced and shipped to their destinations.

Robert Bolman, founding director of Maitreya Ecovillage in Eugene, helped with the construction of Dharmalaya, which he described as “a fixture in the community that countless hundreds of people absolutely adore and value and cherish.” He said one difficulty that operations like Dharmalaya and Maitreya often face in dealing with building codes is that they are forced to provide off-street parking for cars, even though the people using their buildings may try to minimize their use of cars.

“The space off the street should be gardens and places for children to play, not automobile storage,” Bolman said.

Bolman said Maitreya has a small amount of graywater purification on site, but that it’s not as well done or ambitious as the system at Dharmalaya.

“Dharmalaya is doing a really, really good job of trying to do the sort of thing that should be done,” Bolman said. “They should not be punished for it.”

McKerrow said the city is working with Dharmalaya on the issue and making sure Renee and Logan are aware of all their options for going through the process of applying for a conditional use permit.

“We’re really hoping to receive an application soon so we can get that process started,” McKerrow said.

Renee and Logan feel that the city is supportive of their concerns but constrained by the regulations of the state of Oregon. They emphasized that their interactions with city employees have been positive.

“We’d love to have them for neighbors,” Logan said.