Judge rejects plan to build Buddhist temple in Newtown

By Robert Gold, THE NEWS-TIMES, Nov 29, 2005

NEWTOWN, CT (USA) -- Janis Opdahl likes her neighbors. Since 1999, the Cambodian Buddhist Society of Connecticut has owned a small, white farmhouse on Boggs Hill Road.

"As it is now, I'm perfectly happy. They're quiet. They don't cause any problems. They have a lovely house. They're fine neighbors as it is now," Opdahl said.

Opdahl hopes a Danbury Superior Court judge's decision will keep it that way.

In 2003, the Newtown planning and zoning commission rejected the Buddhist group's plan to build a 7,600 square-foot temple, citing concerns about traffic and noise in a residential area.

Several neighbors objected to the project, voicing similar objections.

The farm house currently attracts perhaps a dozen people at a time for services. A new temple, the Buddhist group said, could attract about 450 people per day on weekends.

The Buddhist group filed a lawsuit shortly after the commission's decision, claiming it violated the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The federal law is designed to prevent towns from using zoning laws to block the First Amendment rights of religious groups.

On Nov. 18, Danbury Superior Court Judge Deborah Kochiss Frankel rejected the Buddhist Society's appeal. She said there was no evidence that Newtown's intent was to interfere with the society's free exercise of religion.

"The society failed to meet the initial burden of demonstrating that the commission's denials imposed a 'burden' on it's religious exercise," Frankel states in her decision.

Attorney Marvin Bellis, an attorney representing the Buddhist group, said he will meet with members this week to decide what happens next. He said the group still has hope it can build the temple. There is no other building within the state that could accommodate Buddhists from across Connecticut, he said.

"They do not have a place where they can exercise their religious beliefs," Bellis said.

Bellis said the group will consider appealing the court decision or filing a new application with Newtown's land use boards.

"They take this very seriously," Bellis said. 'They are in dire need of a temple for their religion."

Pong Me, the president of the Buddhist society, did not return calls seeking comment.

Opdahl said she did not have problems with her neighbors' religious background. Instead, she worried about the increased traffic, a 150 car parking lot next door and environmental damage.

"Once they received permission to build a temple, there would be no way for the town to regulate the number of people coming in. It would snowball," she said.