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Saturday, Aug 18, 2018
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A religious group has settled in a big pink house in Clearwater. Neighbors aren’t happy.

CLEARWATER — The first thing John Trevena noticed about his new neighbors was the color of their house: Pepto-Bismol pink.

It didn’t worry Trevena, a criminal defense lawyer who moved into the three-bedroom rental home next door in 2015.

"I knew it was extremely colorful," he said. "I thought they were trying to pattern it after the island homes you see in the Caribbean."

In the following weeks, Trevena noticed other peculiarities at 2319 Nursery Road. The house was covered in blinking lights, forcing Trevena and his wife to install thick blinds in their bedroom.

Heavy smoke also wafted from the back yard, blanketing the neighborhood.

His neighbors are members of a religious nonprofit called Divine Bliss International, which "embraces all the great teachings of all world religions and connects to the inner light and truth of all individuals," its website says.

Trevena recently sued his landlords for, among other issues with his rental, failing to disclose the nature of the two-story home next door. He wants to end the rent-to-own agreement that ties him to the property. The Pinellas County lawsuit is the latest in a string of documented discord between Divine Bliss and its neighbors.

"The neighbor conducts strange religious rites at all hours of the day and night," the lawsuit states.

But Divine Bliss’ Yogesh Arora said the neighborhood fears what it doesn’t understand.

"We want to share love, peace and harmony, and grow together in this world," he said. "But unfortunately, some people do not share that vision."

• • •

The complaints began pouring in to Pinellas County soon after Divine Bliss moved into the 5,159-square-foot home in 2014.

First, it was the paint color.

"That was the biggest thing right away," said Bryan Bullock, who lives nearby on Winchester Road. "What’s going on over there?"

Then the fires began.

The smoke is so heavy that Michael Dalton, who lives across the street, said his grandson can’t play in the back yard and has to bring in his two birds, a macaw and an African gray parrot.

"I’m concerned that my birds could be killed by their smoke," said Dalton. "They’re basically destroying the real estate values in the area."

Joann Harris, whose home is behind Divine Bliss, recalls climbing up the wall with a step ladder and hosing down her neighbor’s fire pit. A man told her he was making charcoal.

"When he does that," she said, "I can’t sit on the back porch."

Trevena said he has heard the neighbors chanting outside. A Clearwater police report said another resident told officers "he has heard multiple people ‘grunting’ in the back yard of the residence during a ritual." The house is in unincorporated Pinellas but is surrounded by houses in the city of Clearwater.

In 2015, the county issued a special exemption to Divine Bliss that allowed it to use the home as a place of worship, said Blake Lyon, director of development review services for the county. Divine Bliss owns the house, property records show.

But when Divine Bliss didn’t comply with certain conditions, including a site plan review, the exemption expired.

"They have chosen to comply with the state law that allows six or fewer unrelated people to reside in a single-family residence," Lyon said.

"Furthermore, they are exercising their First Amendment rights to freedom of religion."

As for the smoke, neighbors say fire officials told them Divine Bliss was using a legal fire pit. Clearwater Fire & Rescue confirmed the burns are legal.

After moving in, Divine Bliss left invitations in all the neighbors’ mailboxes to visit for tea and cookies.

No one went.

• • •

On a recent afternoon this week, Divine Bliss members dressed in white robes opened their doors to a reporter and kindly asked her to remove her shoes before entering.

Inside, intricate murals of flowers covered the walls as instrumental music played and incense burned near the entrance. Perched on a pillow on the carpeted floor, Yogesh Arora explained what Divine Bliss is about.

The nonprofit was founded in 2012 by the organization’s spiritual guru, Guruji Sri Sri Poonamji, a native of India. Her mission is to help people remove negative energy from their lives by connecting with the earth, Arora said. The nonprofit’s website says she has conducted experiments to create elixirs with flowers and crystals. She was out of town during the Tampa Bay Times’ visit.

The nonprofit has members throughout Singapore, Australia, India, and the United States, said Arora, who was a chef before becoming a volunteer for Divine Bliss. He lives at the home with three others.

Arora addressed neighbors’ concerns. They painted the house pink, he said, because that color represents unconditional love.

And the outside rituals?

"The thing about chanting in the back yard is an absolute falsity," Arora said, adding that the members pray twice a day at an altar inside the home.

Outside, Arora walked through several garden beds filled with peppers, potatoes, beans and herbs, and stopped near his fire pit. He uses it to make charcoal from tree branches. Arora cooks in a wood-burning oven typically used to make Indian cuisine.

Divine Bliss’ doors, he said, remain open to neighbors.

"This is a house," Arora added, "of love and light."

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Laura C. Morel at [email protected] Follow @lauracmorel.

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