Hindu group proposes temple along river
Some in Billerica say building will worsen flooding or harm wildlife
The low-lying parcel of wooded riverfront property at the end of Boston Road in Billerica becomes saturated during heavy rains and is prone to flooding. But this fact has not dissuaded a Hindu organization from pursuing plans to build a temple on the site on the Concord River.
The group, named OM Temple Inc., received approval from Billerica's Board of Health on Jan. 3 to proceed with the project. The board's approval is one of several that temple proponents must obtain in what is expected to be a lengthy permitting process. Already, some neighbors have complained about flooding problems and possible harm to wildlife.
As far as the Board of Health is concerned, the proposal has met requirements, said Richard Berube, the board's director.
"Where they want to build is right on the river, but they came forward with plans that met our requirements on drainage and sewer issues," Berube said. "It's in a flood plain, which placed it in our jurisdiction."
The board's approval was welcomed by members of OM Temple. Plans call for an 8,100-square-foot structure, two to three stories in height. The temple would serve as a community and education center where religious leaders would give lectures. The facility would accommodate up to 200 people, who would attend regular weekly services or discussion meetings. Many more would attend special events.
Kanaya Lala, a civil engineer who is a spokesman for the group, said the temple would attract people from the area's Indian population. He estimated that there are about 5,000 people of Indian descent living in and around Billerica.
"Everyone would be welcomed here, not just Indians," said Lala, an Acton resident. He pointed out that there are already Hindu temples in Dracut and Lowell, but that those used existing buildings that were renovated. The Billerica temple would be a new building and would also be located on a river, which he said is a very appealing aspect of this location.
"It's good to be on the water," Lala said. "Water has a cleansing, spiritual aspect to it. Many temples in India are built on the banks of rivers."
The land was donated by a developer who had determined that he could not develop it for commercial use, he said.
While the location may seem ideal for the members of OM Temple, the project has upset some residents who live in the vicinity. They have raised several issues, including concerns that development of any kind would cause widespread flooding during heavy storms. Another complaint is that the projects could disrupt wildlife habitat.
Peter Schwarz, a homeowner on Waterview Avenue, said the 10-acre tract is a fragile wetland area and should be protected from development.
"I've seen deer, coyote, great herons, red tail hawks, swans, and even a bald eagle on that land," said Schwarz, who has distributed fliers about the project to neighbors. "Any type of building is going to disrupt that. I have nothing against the group, but this is bound to be harmful."
"This river has been known to rise," he said. "When it does, people have less yard space because our yards become submerged. We've adapted and learned to live with it, because we're close to the river and the flood plain. Where they want to build is in that flood plain. I suspect that the flooding will be worse if they get to build."
In plans filed with the Board of Health, OM Temple proposed building the temple on columns that would raise the structure 2 feet above the ground. Storm drains and basins would be installed to collect water and direct it back to the river.
"They'll build it so that the water will flow under the building, then it will recede back into the river," said Berube, who reviewed the plan along with members of the Board of Health.
Lala said his group is undaunted by the concerns they will have to address in their effort to secure permits from town boards and state agencies.
"We feel this temple can be built at this location," he said. "We are willing to satisfy whatever regulations we have to satisfy to get this approved."
The proposal will now move to the Billerica Conservation Commission. Tom Woolford, the commission's chairman, said the board will schedule hearings after members have had a chance to review the plans. He said the property's propensity to flooding, coupled with its location on the Concord River, will raise many questions.
"The whole area gets wet, like a lake, when there's a lot of rainfall," said Woolford, who declined to comment on the details of the project because he had not seen the plans. "If the property wasn't so hard to develop, it would have been developed already. Land in Billerica is at a premium."
Alexander Reid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.