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Town council settles with Jehovah’s Witness congregation


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Town council settles with Jehovah’s Witness congregation

By JAKE BERRY

Staff Writer for the Nashua Telegraph

MERRIMACK – A court settlement could have given second life to the Merrimack Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which is seeking to build a house of worship in town.

After months of court battles, the Town Council on Thursday agreed to a settlement that has revived the proposal for a Kingdom Hall within the town borders, according to Councilor Jackie Flood.

“We’re settling with the church,” Flood said. “They’ll withdraw their suit with no prejudice.”

Last fall, members of the town zoning board shot down a proposal to build on Wire Road, citing traffic issues and decreased property values, among other concerns. But congregation elders promptly turned around and sued over the decision, accusing the town of religious discrimination. The matter has been caught up since in U.S. District Court.

“In an effort to avoid the continued expense and potential liability … the Town Council has agreed to settle this litigation,” town officials wrote in the draft settlement that was up for discussion by councilors Thursday. “This Town adamantly denies any wrong doing and this settlement acknowledges that fact.”

Congregation elders first agreed to buy the property at 63 Wire Road last year, looking to end their 25-year search for a permanent home. The group, which consists of 100 members, has met for years without a stable place of worship, hosting meetings instead at congregants’ homes and neighboring churches.

The zoning board’s denial, however, left the congregation looking to the courts to continue the fight.

Attorney Michael Tierney, who represents the congregation, filed suit in December in U.S. District Court, alleging that the town’s zoning ordinances leave room for discrimination.

The loose wording of the zoning codes allow town officials room to use their own discretion, rather than established criteria, when considering building projects, Tierney argued before the court in January.

“In this case, we’re not claiming we have a free right to build anywhere in town. We’re saying this ordinance is unconstitutional and gives power to discriminate between denominations,” he said at the time.

But Judge Joseph DiClerico disagreed, ruling against the congregation’s request for an injunction, or an immediate decision.

“Despite some contrary authority, the court is persuaded that the location of a church, absent of other expressive issues, does not implicate the right to free expression,” DiClerico wrote in his decision, released in April.

Since that time, the matter has remained held up in court. But the proposed settlement could allow both sides to move forward, they said. Members of the congregation already have signed off on the settlement, as has the town zoning board, according to Town Manager Eileen Cabanel. If the Town Council agrees, the matter then will go back to court for final approval.

Should a judge approve the settlement, congregation elders then could bring a proposal back to the planning board for consideration. Board members then would go through the site plan review process, hosting public hearings on traffic concerns, among other issues.

Flood said the zoning board has passed off the traffic and other issues for the planning board to address.

“The planning board’s going to start from square one where it always starts,” she said.

“We hope this will give us another chance to find a home in the Merrimack area,” Ralph Randall, the congregation’s project development director, said Thursday. “Our aim is to work very closely with the town of Merrimack in their building practices, so we can do it according to their (ordinances).”

Article Source: Nashua Telegraph

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Congregation elders first agreed to buy the property at 63 Wire Road last year, looking to end their 25-year search for a permanent home. The group, which consists of 100 members, has met for years without a stable place of worship, hosting meetings instead at congregants’ homes and neighboring churches.

Really? 25 years without a Kingdom Hall? Roaming around? I looked and it appears this is in New Hampshire. Boggles my mind this happens in well developed regions of the US.

Or anywhere in the US, for that matter.

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