Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Occupancy issue debated at Rt. 34 temple hearing

SUBURBAN: OLD BRIDGE — The president of a Hare Krishna group spoke July 10 in response to the township Planning Board’s request for more details about the proposed operation of a temple on Route 34. But his testimony raised new questions as he answered old ones.
Mrugesh Shroff, a chemical engineer and consultant, has served as president of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) of Central New Jersey since its inception in 2004. From the beginning, the size of the congregation has remained relatively constant at about 150 members. The group currently rents a facil- ity on Route 35 in the township.
It seeks to locate a temple and priest quarters on 6.3 acres of residential zoned land that the organization has purchased on Route 34 southbound, across from Canyon Woods Drive.
When ISKCON filed its original application with the township in 2009, the proposed temple was 38,000 square feet and would accommodate 420 devotees. The planned temple has decreased considerably in size over the last three years of hearings to the 22,000-square-foot design currently under consideration.
The temple’s dome has been reduced in height by more than half, from 73 feet to 32 feet, with a flagpole atop the structure that would reach 45 feet.
While ISKCON originally sought to house three to five resident priests within the temple, it is now seeking a separate priest quarters to accommodate just one or two priest families. The proposed two-story, 4,000-square-foot priest quarters would feature four bedrooms and a study, as well as a 2,000-square-foot basement.
“We have gone from a traditional design to a more contemporary design in order to meet our objectives,” Shroff said.
Through all the design changes, the temple’s stated occupancy has only decreased by two worshippers, from 420 to 418, which raised eyebrows among residents who have been fighting against the application’s approval. Shroff and other ISKCON representatives have testified that the 418 number was based on the size of the property and how much parking the site could accommodate, and was not based on the historic or projected growth of the congregation.
“The testimony states they really haven’t planned, studied or [had] experts help with their growth projections,” said Sal D’Angelo, a resident of one of neighboring developments and a member of United Old Bridge Residents. “The applicant is sticking to a 400-or-so number, seemingly to align with other existing Old Bridge temples’ and churches’ capacities in an effort to get township approval,” D’Angelo said.
Board Chairman Larry Redmond said the Planning Board will need to hear more testimony about attendance numbers, especially those pertaining to ISKCON’s three major festivals. Currently, ISKCON works in conjunction with other organizations to hold its three major festivals off-site from its rented facility. Those combined events attract larger crowds, ranging from 400 to 1,000 people.
Bruce Freeman, attorney for United Old Bridge Residents, repeated his request that ISKCON agree to a condition to hold all major festivals off-site from the new temple. However, ISKCON is not obligated to abide by conditions outlined by the attorney for the objectors, according to Jonathan Heilbrunn, the applicant’s attorney.
“We hope they find a more suitable location to flourish, as I think the Planning Board should see through the inconsistencies and see clearly the issues of overuse,” said D’Angelo. “If not, both sides will be at odds for a long, long time.”
The next hearing of ISKCON’s application is scheduled for Sept. 11 at 7:30 p.m. in the municipal building.

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