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Merrimack board OKs Jehovah’s Witnesses’ church proposal

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By JAKE BERRY | Staff Writer | Nashua Telegraph

MERRIMACK – More than a year after the Merrimack Zoning Board of Adjustment rejected a proposal for a Jehovah’s Witnesses church in town, board members reconsidered their decision Wednesday, offering initial approval for the church to be built on Wire Road.

ZBA members initially voted last fall to reject the congregation’s proposal to build a Kingdom Hall on the former farmland at 63 Wire Road, citing traffic and safety, among other concerns. But congregation leaders kept the matter alive, suing both the board and the town for religious discrimination, among other charges.

The two sides appeared to come to an agreement earlier this fall, reaching a settlement. But a U.S. District Court judge recently rejected the settlement, sending the matter back to the zoning board.

More than a dozen area residents spoke out Wednesday against the project, warning of the same traffic and safety issues they spoke of a year earlier. “The land in question is zoned residential. A church, simply put, is not a residential use,” said Lisa Underhill, an area resident.

“I’m baffled. If you folks determined this was not in the public’s interest last time, with no additional facts, … how you can conclude anything different?” asked Tom Boland, a resident of nearby Mallard Point Road.

But the board members disagreed, voting 5-3 to approve the matter rather than extending the lawsuit and subjecting the town to continued legal fees, which could reach $1 million, according to the town’s attorney, Gary Lane of Concord.

“My heart goes out to the abutters … but my feeling is we couldn’t win,” said board member Phil Straight, one of three to vote in favor of the project. “We’d spend a million dollars, and we’d lose it anyway.”

Now that the zoning board has approved the matter, the project will move forward to the town Planning Board, which will look deeper into traffic, safety and lighting, among other details, as part of the site plan review process.

“This isn’t the end of what’s going on. This is the first step,” board Chairman Tony Pellegrino assured the audience after the vote. “The Planning Board has more tools, has engineers, has everything they possibly can to solve this problem.”

Once the proposal passes the Planning Board, congregation elders could complete construction of the church within two or three months, according to Ralph Randall, the congregation’s project development director.

“We need to meet the (town’s building requirements) just like anyone else,” Randall said after the meeting. “There’s no doubt in my mind (we’ll be good neighbors).”

Article Source: Nashua Telegraph


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