Buddhist Pursue Court Appeal For Temple Project

By Andrew Gorosko, The Newtown Bee, Dec 8, 2005

Newtown, CT (USA) -- A religious group that wants to build a temple at a Boggs Hill Road property is seeking permission from the Connecticut Appellate Court to file an appeal challenging a recent Danbury Superior Court decision, which upheld the Newtown Planning and Zoning Commission's (P&Z) past rejection of the temple construction proposal.

Attorney Marvin Bellis, of the Hartford law firm Murtha Cullina, LLP, which represents the Cambodian Buddhist Society of Connecticut, Inc, said December 7, the society is seeking Apellate Court permission to file an appeal that would seek to overturn Judge Deborah Kochiss Frankel's November 18 decision on the society's Superior Court appeal.

Judge Frankel's ruling upheld the P&Z's February 2003 rejection of the society's proposal to build a 7,600-square-foot temple/meeting hall at the society's ten-acre property in a residential area at 145 Boggs Hill Road. The society has a monastery at the site.

Following lengthy consideration, P&Z members unanimously rejected the temple/meeting hall proposal, noting that the Buddhists' envisioned use of the property, involving increased traffic and noise, would be "far too intense for this particular site." P&Z members found that the sloping site holds a significant amount of wetlands. Such a constraint would limit the area available for existing facilities, the proposed temple/meeting hall, parking spaces for about 150 vehicles, and activities involving 450 or more people on weekends, according to the P&Z.

The temple/meeting hall proposal drew heavy opposition from nearby property owners, who listed traffic problems and noise among their main complaints. A group of eight nearby residents entered the Buddhist's Superior Court action as intervenors, siding with the P&Z in the case.

In March 2003, citing religious freedom, as protected by federal and state law, the society filed a court appeal in seeking to overturn the P&Z's rejection of its application. Through the appeal, the society sought to have a judge order the P&Z to approve the temple/meeting hall application.

Mr Bellis said December 7, "We're filing a petition for certification," which, if granted by the Appellate Court, would allow the society to file a formal appeal of Judge Frankel's decision.

Mr Bellis said that Judge Frankel erred in interpreting applicable law in rendering her decision in the Superior Court appeal. The federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and the state's Religious Freedom Act are the laws addressed in the society's Superior Court appeal.

In her 35-page legal decision, Judge Frankel wrote, "The society's claim alleging a violation of the equal protection clause [of the law] is unavailing because the court finds no evidence of selective treatment. The court further finds the society has neither established a 'substantial burden' nor a 'burden' on religious exercise sufficient to meet its prerequisite burden for a claim under [applicable federal and state law]. ...The court finds insufficient evidence to determine that the [P&Z's] denial of the special permit, pursuant to substantial evidence in the record, was unreasonable, arbitrary, or illegal."

Mr Bellis said, that considering the significant issues involved in the society's Superior Court appeal of the P&Z's temple rejection, he expects that the Appellate Court would allow the society to file a formal appeal. Deciding such an appeal could take a year or more.

Mr Bellis said he expects that the appellate court would rule in about seven or eight weeks on whether it would accept an appeal.

P&Z Chairman William O'Neil said December 8 that rather than appealing the Superior Court decision, the society would be better advised to seek some other, more practical location for a temple/meeting hall elsewhere in Newtown. The P&Z is willing to aid the society find a better location for its facilities, he said.

After the Buddhists acquired the Boggs Hill Road property in early 1999, nearby residents complained to the P&Z that the Buddhists held large events there that created noise and traffic problems. Based on those complaints, the P&Z issued a cease-and-desist order against the Buddhist society not to hold such gatherings unless it received a special exception to do so. Through its August 2002 P&Z temple/meeting hall application, the society had sought that special exception.