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November 14. 2012 10:43PM

Salem selectmen approve new Hindu temple on Lowell Road

SALEM - Despite opposition from neighbors opposed to the construction of a proposed Hindu temple on Lowell Road, the town's Board of Selectmen Tuesday night voted 5-1 to approve the project.

A full house attended the meeting, with opponents voicing concerns about traffic and noise the project could bring.

Dr. Deepak Sharma, a Salem pediatrician, initially presented plans for the 17,000-square-foot, three-story temple last May. He hopes to build at 33 Lowell Road, near Coles Mobile Home Park and several businesses within the town's commercial/industrial district.

Sharma said the plans include a 150-seat function hall, a 60-person prayer hall and a 150-seat auditorium, as well as a 57-space parking lot.

Last spring's public hearing was continued to this week because of the many questions posed by residents.

After the board listened to concerns, Ronald Belanger was the only member to vote against the proposal, saying he felt the board's decision to charge the congregation several thousand dollars in impact fees was "unconstitutional."

Belanger said he was not opposed to the project itself.

Project officials agreed to work with the town to meet all the requirements outlined in the provisional approval, including receipt of a sewer permit. Another public hearing won't be necessary provided conditions are met "within a reasonable time."

Sharma previously said it could take up to nine months to build the temple.

Salem planning director Ross Moldoff said the plans have changed very little since spring, though an additional, one-way driveway has been added to the plans to address traffic concerns.

David Jordan of MHF Design Consultants spoke on Sharma's behalf during this week's public hearing.

Jordan noted that since the temple would be a startup congregation, it's difficult to determine exactly how much the area's traffic would increase.

"We do know Hindu temples aren't very common in this area," said Jordan, noting the nearest temples are in Andover, Mass., and Nashua.

Jordan further noted that temple officials would make sure there aren't any overlapping events onsite in hopes of avoiding large crowds.

In the rare instances when special events and holidays are celebrated, Jordan said temple officials are arranging for offsite parking at nearby Pelham Road, where a 150-space parking lot on property already owned by Sharma would be available.

"I believe the U.S. Constitution talks about freedom of religion," Belanger said. "So if they can get lots of members, God bless them. I don't want to do anything that might hinder someone from practicing a religion."

Not everyone agreed.

Attorney Robert Lavoie, who spoke on behalf of the owners of several nearby businesses, said this project is particularly complex since it would presumably be used for purposes other than standard worship.

"What we have here is (also) an auditorium and function hall," Lavoie said. "So we need to really analyze if this is really an appropriate location for.three uses rolled in one lot. It's three stories of functions with only one really serving as a church."

"It's a beautiful structure," he added. "But I'm just questioning whether this is really a suitable location."

Lisa Gillis, a 30-year resident of the trailer park next door, said she and her neighbors have similar concerns.

"We'd welcome a new church in this community but I just feel 1.1 acres of land is the wrong size for this large, large building," she said. "There's got to be somewhere else."

Gillis said she recently circulated a petition stating her concerns and collected 150 citizen signatures.

" I just don't see any kind of reasonable traffic situation coming from this," she said.

Despite voting in favor of the project, board vice chair Phyllis O'Grady said she also took issue with the size of the lot versus the proposed structure.

"It changes everything," O'Grady said. "Growing the church could take years, but in the meantime, the banquet facility upstairs could be used. It's a concern."

"A church isn't just a prayer hall," countered Jordan. "The whole building is the church."

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April Guilmet may be reached at AGuilmet@newstote.com.


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