Group seeks to build religious center on Rt. 34
BY TOYNETT HALL Staff Writer
The Hare Krishna movement is proposing a $7 million temple and cultural center on Route 34 between Highview Terrace and Sheila Court in Old Bridge, but it faces staunch opposition from some area residents.
Known as ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness), the religious group has applied to the Planning Board to construct a 38,000-square-foot domed religious center on a vacant 6.3- acre tract. The property, on Route 34 south opposite Canyon Woods Drive, is in the township’s R-30 single-family residential zone, where houses of worship are conditionally permitted.
The applicant also seeks to build eight dormitory units within the proposed temple, and 154 parking stalls, according to information provided in a township report. Religious dormitories are not permitted in the R-30 zone, and a variance is required.
Madhupati Dasa, president of the ISKCON of Central Jersey, said this temple would be the first in this part of the state.
“We are trying to provide a place for Hindus living in central New Jersey to come and participate and learn about their culture,” Dasa said.
Hare Krishna is a major monotheistic tradition, known academically as vaishnavism or sanatana dharma, “the eternal religion.” The core practice is bhakti (devotion) to Krishna. Although seen as a major strand of Hinduism, it is a transcendental and nonsectarian process of devotional yoga that can be harmonized with any theistic religious practice, according to the Web site iskcon.org.uk.
Jonathan Heilbrunn, an attorney representing the group in its application to the Planning Board, said the ISKCON of Central New Jersey currently rents space in the Italian American Club on Route 35 in Old Bridge’s Laurence Harbor section. It presently has 150 worshippers, but the applicant hopes to increase the congregation to 420.
Residents of the Woods and Highview developments are raising concerns about the proposal.
Teal Vaughan, a Sheila Court resident, is concerned that the project would adversely affect quality of life in the area. Vaughan said the applicant’s proposal is misleading, and the project is too big for the area. The size of the proposal, she said, is “shocking.”
“This is in my backyard. The size and what they are putting there is very questionable,” Vaughan said. “This is much more than a temple and that’s the issue.”
“It’s monstrous in size. There will be very early morning services. There are guest rooms â€¦ This is almost like a compound,” Vaughan said.
Vaughan said she read on the group’s Web site that they want to attract thousands of worshipers, and she fears the traffic impact of that. She said the applicant needs to be forthcoming about how many people will be worshipping there.
“You don’t spend $7 million to have a few people come there. It’s going to cause a lot of havoc,” she said. She acknowledged that the group has a right to build on the site, but said residents also “have the right to live in peace.”
Melissa Woung, another resident, feels the same way.
“The grave concerns I have are noise, the value of my property decreasing, and the fact that my quality of life will never be the same,” Woung said.
“My property backs up to this project. What is going to happen to me and my family?” she asked.
Woung questioned whether the religious group is being truthful about its intentions. She would like the applicant to scale back and be considerate of the neighboring community.
“I am not opposed to the temple being built. We all want to live in harmony with one another, and they need to consider the row of homes directly behind the temple and propose a better plan to us. Everyone has rights, including us, to continue enjoying our quality of life,” Woung said.
Resident Sal D’Angelo shared those concerns. D’Angelo said he would like to see a more inclusive discussion.
“I would like it to be an open discussion. If they want to build a temple, that is fine, but not a 75-foot dome,” D’Angelo said. “â€¦ I don’t like the idea of a gigantic cultural center being built, no matter which religion. I would like to see the plan scaled back.”
ISKCON of New Jersey’s Web site provides a wealth of information regarding what will be provided once the temple is completed. Some of the residents are up in arms about the temple’s schedule of operation. According to information provided on the Web site, weekday worship begins at 4:30 a.m. and continues throughout the day until 8 p.m. In addition, the center plans to provide catering, festivals, a yoga center, library, gardens, and recreational grounds.
The applicant began testimony before the board last week, and Heilbrunn said his client’s professionals have already addressed some of the concerns such as traffic.
“There was a traffic study prepared and received by the Old Bridge Police Department and the Old Bridge traffic engineer. The results showed there to be no adverse traffic impact,” Heilbrunn said.
In regards to buffers for neighboring and adjacent residents, Heilbrunn said the society members are “aware of the concerns, and they plan to provided the required amount of buffering.” He said noise concern is a non- issue.
“Hindus are not great makers of noise,” he said.
Testimony is scheduled to resume on April 7.