A dispute between neighbors and a Hindu temple in the northeastern part of Chatham County could result in new regulations on where churches and religious institutions could locate in the …
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A dispute between neighbors and a Hindu temple in the northeastern part of Chatham County could result in new regulations on where churches and religious institutions could locate in the county.
The Chatham County Board of Commissioners heard a request last week for a change to the county’s zoning ordinance which, if approved, would require churches and religious institutions to seek board approval before locating in residential areas.
The request was filed by Jim Cassese, a resident in the northeastern portion of the county, triggering last week’s public hearing. More than two dozen people signed up to speak at the hearing, which took place during the commissioners’ regular meeting at the Chatham County Courthouse.
Cassese and other neighbors came to the public hearing to support the request for additional oversight for religious institutions in residential areas due to concerns of traffic, safety and pollution.
“This is not about religion, it’s about privacy and public safety,” Cassese said during the hearing.
Concerns included exterior lighting, music from events, and cars “overburdening” the kind of private gravel road on which Cassese lives. Residents argued that a church is a public entity and should be considered as such during the permitting process.
“I am requesting the wording change in the zoning rules because in the past year the temple that has been opened has severely altered the entrance to our road and made it completely impossible to get in or out when they hold their large events,” Cassese said.
“When I talked to the county about it they informed me that no public hearing was needed in order to open a religious institution,” he said. “In other words, one could open wherever they wanted and the residents that live in the area had absolutely no say in it. That is the rule right now.”
At the public hearing, temple members who signed up to speak allocated their time to attorney Paul Messick, who also serves as attorney for the Town of Pittsboro, to speak on their behalf.
Messick argued that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, passed in 2000, protects religious institutions in these kinds of situations. He also raised concerns about the legality of the proposed ordinance amendment.
“I think this proposed amendment violates that law,” Messick cautioned commissioners. “And I think it subjects the county to substantial liability. This is not a public organization. This is a private religious organization that uses private land.”
Messick noted that non-profit clubs, public parks and recreation areas, and schools are all permitted in residential areas. He said those public uses of private lands do not require a conditional use permit as was suggested for a religious organization.
The Radha Krishna Temple of N.C. sits on land purchased by Neeta Chokshi in 2017 and is located near Cassese’s property off Hollands Chapel Road. After purchasing the land, the temple completed a process with the county to allow a converted basement in an existing home on the property to be a temporary worship area while they prepare to construct a permanent temple.
Previously, the proposed temple went through pre-approval meetings with the county. The county has standards and requirements for the temple’s construction including minimum acreage required, setbacks, lighting and signage.
The temple’s use of a basement of an existing home had to show parking equivalent for the space currently used for worship. The issue seems to hinge on when the temple hosts special events, based on complaints from nearby residents.
Cassese’s road, Hogan’s Farm Road, and the temple’s road, Radhika Way, meet at a single point at Hollands Chapel Road. Both roads are private, gravel covered, single-laned roads.
The Radha Krishna Temple of N.C. holds religious services each weekend with about 40 attendees. The temple has held two large-scale events—a grand opening in April and a ceremonial event in September.
According to Chokshi, members of the temple informed neighbors in advance of the events to address concerns.
“I met all the owners in good spirit at our temple and addressed their questions with kindness and love,” Chokshi said. “Whenever I could I addressed their requests.”
Per the neighbors’ requests, Chokshi hired a Chatham Sheriff’s Deputy to direct traffic during large events, cleaned any debris, and turned off decorative lighting used for a New Year’s event.
Chokshi also stated that the temple responded to requests by neighbors to fix the entrance of the two roads.
“They asked to fix the entrance – they thought that our event wore it out, but the contractor said it was because of Florence – [and] we fixed it,” Chokshi said. “They were not happy; the contractor was again hired to fix it.”
In Chatham County, churches are permitted by right in residential areas. In Sanford, churches are permitted in residential areas except downtown. Churches are also permitted within the town limits of Siler City and Pittsboro. In Wake County, churches are permitted in residential areas except in specific watersheds which require additional approvals.
Regardless of what the Board of Commissioners decides, the Radha Krishna Temple of N.C. will not be affected. Even if the text amendment passes, as the structure and property have already been approved as a religious institution, the temple won’t be subject to any revisions, according to Chatham County Planning Director Jason Sullivan. Commissioners are awaiting guidance from the county’s Planning Board before acting.
Chokshi hopes that an agreement between the temple and the neighbors can be reached.
“We are simple people of simple faith and devotion who are open to discussing concerns and issues as they arise without the unnecessary attention they are hoping to garner by including the media and county officials,” Chokshi said. “We have gone through all the legal requirements of setting up a place of worship in this area. However, we understand that the close proximity of their personal lands with the place of worship lands can contribute to some tension. We hope that we can develop open lines of communication and hope that they will welcome the diversity and beauty of a serene temple that we envision.”