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ZBA Agrees to Settlement for Controversial Church Plan

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Residents angered at board's decision to settle lawsuit to allow Jehovah's Witness group to move forward in review process with plans to build a Kingdom Hall on Wire Road.

By Carolyn Dube | Merrimack Patch

A group of nearly two dozen Merrimack residents left a public hearing Wednesday night frustrated and upset after the Zoning Board of Adjustment voted 3-2 to accept a lawsuit settlement that puts a controversial building plan back on the table.

The settlement is for a lawsuit brought against the town and ZBA 11 months ago by a group of Jehovah's Witnesses who want to build a Kingdom Hall at 63 Wire Road, an old farm in a residential zone.

A dozen residents spoke at the meeting, all vehemently against the proposed settlement, reiterating concerns they had last year, primarily about traffic, safety and property depreciation.

Eileen Martin said she was very concerned about what the church would do to her property value, which already took a hit with this summer's revaluation and she and her husband can't afford another depreciation.

“You made the right decision last time by declining this,” Martin said. “These people aren't even from our town, they are strongholding us into lawsuits. It is not fair.”

Tom Boland shared some of Martin's concerns and expressed his disbelief that the town would allow the people with all the money win and not protect the “average joe citizens.”

“We're going to greenlight this for a congregation of, whatever, 80-100 people, many of whom are not even residents of this town,” Boland said. “Ridiculous, I can't believe it. Ashamed for you and for the town. The fact of the matter is I don't know how you rationalize this in your own minds.”

The town's attorney in the matter, Garry Lane, said it was his recommendation to settle the case in favor of saving the town massive litigation fees that could cost upward of $1 million if the case carried on in court.

According to Lane, the two parties attempted to settle the case earlier this fall, but a U.S. District Court judge would not approve the settlement, saying it was a decision that needed to be made by the ZBA.

When Wednesday night's meeting started, the congregation had signed the settlement and it was up to the board to vote whether to accept the settlement, and if it agreed, to sign their side of the agreement.

According to town zoning laws, churches are acceptable structures in residential areas but must be given special exception approval by the ZBA, which must consider a variety of factors in making its decision.

Last November, the board denied the application saying the intended use was not consistent with the intent that residential land be maintained for residential use and that the church would create a nuisance in terms of noise and traffic congestion in that area of town.

After losing an appeal of the decision, the Jehovah's Witnesses took the case to court, charging the town's special exception process is unconstitutional in that it lets a board to apply one set of rules to one group and a different set to another. It also charges, among other things, that the town treated the church differently than it would have another denomination violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

Several residents who spoke against approving the settlement suggested the building is a done deal, that the Kingdom Hall will inevitably be erected, however Matthew Upton, the town's attorney, pointed out that the approval of the settlement is not so. The plan must be approved by the Planning Board, he said. And the Planning Board will look at things such as traffic counts, safety and noise, the main complaints from abutters.

“This is not the end of the dicussion and I'm certainly listening hard to all the abutters and I can certainly appreciate many of the issues that have been raised, but if the church is really not appropriate for that area, that discussion or decision is ultimately going to be made by the Planning Board if this is approved,” Upton said. “This is just one step in the process.”

Zoning Board member Mike Marshall said the ZBA doesn't have the tools to study that as well as the Planning Board.

“By us approving the settlement and moving it over to the next step, the planning board has the engineers and has the tools to research this to validate or dismiss whatever claims are made in terms of traffic,” Marshall said. “I have a feeling that that would be the better way to go with this.”

Board Chairman Tony Pellegrino, ahead of calling for a vote, told residents that the Planning Board will study this application closely and take into account the concerns brought before the zoning board.

“I feel for the people in the neighborhoods and this is not the end, ladies and gentlemen, I just wanted to say that,” Pellegrino said. “Whatever goes down, ladies and gentlemen, I feel for you.”

Following the hearing, Ralph Randall, the project development director for the Jehovah's Witnesses in Vermont and New Hampshire, said they picked the property because they like the setting and the price was right. They did not set out to do battle, he said, adding that it is very rare for their organization to face this kind of opposition to a project.

Mark Sornson and Ron Hansen, member of the congregation who attended the meeting, also spoke to the statements made that the members of the congregation do not live in town. Hansen said the majority of the congregation lives in town, and Sornson pointed out that the church is just like churches everywhere: Some members live in town, some do not.

With the approval of the settlement, this project will be placed on an upcoming Planning Board agenda to begin the site review process.

Article Source: Merrimack Patch


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