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The Verde Independent | Cottonwood, Arizona

home : latest news : local February 26, 2015

12/21/2010 3:48:00 PM
Tao Fellowship agrees to land use stipulation
The entrance to the Mago Information Center at State Route 89A and Bill Gray Road. VVN/Dan Engler
The entrance to the Mago Information Center at State Route 89A and Bill Gray Road. VVN/Dan Engler

Jon Hutchinson
Staff Reporter

COTTONWOOD - It has taken a year, but Tao Fellowship President Steve Kim signed a stipulation Monday for the disposition of violations of the Yavapai County land use code. The violations alleged that six properties in a residential area had been used as a commercial resort.

The properties owned by the Fellowship total over 160 acres and stand at the north end of Bill Gray Road near a large-lot residential area surrounded by National Forest land.

Supervisor of the Land Use Unit of the Yavapai County Development Services Department, Boyce Macdonald, insisted that the signed document is not a "settlement." Macdonald said it is, "kind of like a plea bargain with the county. The defendant comes to an agreement and the hearing officer sees that and likes it. That is the whole deal ... to gain compliance, not to punish people."

The negotiated stipulation was agreed upon with the help of two land use attorneys, Paul Gilbert in Phoenix and Bill Ring in Flagstaff.

The Fellowship agreed to the county's allegations that the Tao Fellowship had "allowed commercial uses on the properties" that are not permitted in a residential zone and agreed to comply with county requirements.

The wording of the agreement says that the violations occurred over a period of "60 consecutive or non-consecutive days between January 1, 2006 through December 31, 2009."

Macdonald publicly announced the county violations during Jan. 21 hearing at Mingus Union High School before the Cottonwood Planning and Zoning Commission. That hearing was reviewing the uses and statues at Mago Gardens, a small property within the city limits where a nearly 50-foot statue had been erected.

Under the county stipulation agreement, the Tao Fellowship must immediately apply for a permanent conditional use permit to hold activities that are non-religious or allow third parties to use the properties. The use permit will allow the Tao Fellowship to use lodging, horseback riding, dining or retail sales of non-religious items and special event facilities to non-religious and third-party uses. A pre-application meeting has already been held.

"We worked with neighbors (who originally brought the complaint) extensively to address some of their concerns and that is what this will do," said Macdonald. "The use permit will be able to have public input. That is the first step. The Tao Fellowship must have public participation to explain their intentions and to hear public complaints."

According to the stipulation, the Fellowship must also pay an administrative fee of $100 per property.

The Fellowship has until April 24, 2011, to be granted a use permit, according to terms of the stipulation, and, if not, will be subject to a sanction of up to $600,000.

Many of the religious retreats in Yavapai County have similar issues, according to Macdonald. He said several use the facility for religious functions 10-12 weeks out of the year, and the rest of the time they are rented out. There are now six such retreat centers and camps that the McDonald is working with.

The second major facility in the Verde Valley, Angel Valley Retreat Center, will be considered for a community plan amendment Wednesday before the Yavapai Planning and Zoning Commission.

"He (operator Michael Hamilton) came forward and didn't try to fight it and was not in violation," Macdonald noted.

Angel Valley is the center between Sedona and Cottonwood where James Ray's now infamous sweat lodge experience led to three deaths last October.

The term "religious activity," under which the camps and retreats are otherwise exempt, is intentionally vague, admits Macdonald, to recognize their First Amendment rights.

"We are not arguing what is their religious position. We are saying it has gone beyond religion and it is commercial," said Macdonald.

A couple of the retreats or camps already have zoning to do that. The RCD (residential camping district) allows that. The older facilities pre-existed such zoning.

The issue has drawn so much interest that Macdonald says, "there is an ordinance amendment coming down the pike."

The Tao Fellowship was contacted for this story but did not respond in time for publication.

Taylor Waste

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Reader Comments

Posted: Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Article comment by: Resting Pond

I am interested how this stipulation will pan out in State and IRS level. They should definitely investigate training fees masked as "donations".

Posted: Monday, December 27, 2010
Article comment by: natural consequences

Shouldn't they have to pay more than 10 years of back property taxes on the lands they used for commercial purposes under the pretext of being a qualified tax-exempt non-profit religion? I hope the state and federal tax agencies are paying attention too.

Posted: Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Article comment by: Bill Gray

Thank you to Boyce Macdonald and Development Services for all the effort required to stand up to the Tao Fellowship Corporation and their legal team. In the end, they were simply wrong - it just took a year and thousands of man hours to prove it legally.
Ironically, now that their profitable resort activity is in check, it seems there are only about 30 folks who participate in their religious activities.

Posted: Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Article comment by: Sherry McMahon

To the extent the County gets these people to start paying their fair share of property taxes ... good job.

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