Lights and Too Much Action at Trinity Studios, Neighbors Say

Los Angeles Times/March 3, 2003
By Jennifer Mena

The Costa Mesa neighborhood was supposed to share the traits of many other bedroom communities in Southern California -- stucco homes lining peaceful streets, the commotion of playful children giving way to quiet evenings.

But it didn't turn out that way.

One resident lowers $4,000 window blinds nightly to shield herself from the lights. Others complain about the loud music and charter buses that hiss noisily long after the kids are in bed, idling in wait for camera-toting tourists. And others gripe about production equipment humming in the middle of the night.

The source of their complaints is not an amusement park, but a church, and not just a church, but the largest Christian television network in the world -- Trinity Broadcasting Network. Its headquarters, starkly visible alongside the San Diego Freeway, is alternately compared to a wedding cake, the Taj Mahal and the White House.

The Costa Mesa-based ministry, which generated $160 million in revenue in 2001, spreads its word on more than 5,000 television stations worldwide.

It is being scrutinized by the Costa Mesa Planning Commission, which is wondering how to balance its elaborate operations -- including outdoor tapings -- against its neighbors' desires for peace and quiet.

When the tidy subdivision just south of the San Diego Freeway opened in 1996, homeowners knew of the plans for a church facility between them and the freeway, but they assumed it would be a good neighbor. How offensive could a church be? After all, as the Scriptures implore, "Love your neighbor as yourself."

Soon after buying the property, TBN converted an existing building into its elaborate Trinity Christian City International headquarters. The first Christmas, they brought out the lights -- 1 million of them, the church boasts, symbolic of the hope of Jesus -- and even kept them on during California's electricity crisis, long after Christmas, for decoration and religious inspiration. During the holidays, the public was invited to drive through the light display.

"They barely shine," said TBN spokesman Colby May. "They are simply firefly-in-the-night type of lights."

May said TBN never veered from its original permits, which allowed for "an administrative office complex including TV production facilities, screening and meeting areas," according to documents.

Bus Noise After 10 p.m.

TBN attorney John Casoria said his client is willing to work with neighbors but said "they are complaining about things we have no control over," such as how bus drivers operate their vehicles.

Church activities -- including music-filled celebrations and the public outdoor tapings -- leave people lingering on the grounds and buses growling long after 10 p.m.

Neighbors say they're being denied the suburban lifestyle they sought.

Marian Chappell, who lives next to the church, said she hears every word of the song-filled recording sessions despite closed doors and double-paned windows.

TBN, she said, should not be "a sideshow. This is not Hollywood. This is where we live."

Neighbor Diane Dorrien said she was awakened from a sound sleep when the million lights were turned on for the first time and, another time, was awakened after midnight by the amplified sounds of haunting hymns.

Not all the local homeowners are complaining. TBN has bought 12 of the 79 homes in the subdivision to house production personnel for stretches of several months, May said.

The comings and goings of strangers have triggered another complaint -- barking dogs.

Public Debate Begins

The long list of grievances, most recently over the outdoor recording sessions, led city staff to require TBN to apply for a permit to increase the number of outdoor activities. Last week, the Planning Commission opened public debate on the issue, drawing about a dozen neighbors and others to the meeting. "As a Christian, it really pains me," said former Mayor Sandra Genis, who has watched the TBN property morph into its current size. "This is the same religion I profess, and it says, 'Thou shall love thy neighbor.' It's not about television or lights."

Commissioners asked the city attorney for advice on the complaints, but they may be hamstrung by the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.

The act "changed the playing field for government to regulate religious buildings," said Joseph DiMento, law and urban planning professor at UC Irvine. "It's a huge issue in land-use law that affects lighting, parking, the size of temples and aesthetics."

A church can argue, for instance, that exterior lights "are an essential part of their liturgy," DiMento said. "That is where the government cannot tread. The court says the church decides what is the essential part of the religion."

The city has banned outdoor tapings until it reviews the matter again March 24.

For Vance Ito, the father of year-old twin boys, a decision to restrict activities won't come soon enough. At a recent meeting, he played a recording of buses honking horns as they left the gated facility at 10:30 p.m.

"We just want the peace and quiet that everyone else has when they buy a house," Ito said. "We don't want to be part of the show."

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