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Brookline church plans irk neighbors

Gerry Oster and Evelyn Moreno are concerned about plans to tear down the house in the background to build the church.
Gerry Oster and Evelyn Moreno are concerned about plans to tear down the house in the background to build the church. (Rose Lincoln for the Boston Globe)

BROOKLINE - To accommodate its rapidly growing Massachusetts congregation, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is planning to build a house of worship on the shadowy slope of a drumlin overlooking Brookline Reservoir Park.

But the plan has roiled some members of a high-end residential community whose homes abut the land. A Mormon church, say these residents, will disrupt the landscape, threaten the environment, snag traffic, and, ultimately, depreciate house values in the community, the grounds of which were designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who planned Central Park in New York City and Boston's Emerald Necklace.

"The notion that trees will come down and the building will come up of large dimensions, that is really a concern," said one of the residents, Gerry Oster, walking yesterday on a red-brick pathway that snaked past the elegant manors of the Fisher Hill Estates townhouse association, where Oster lives and where townhouses cost between $1 million and $2 million. "This development may make many of the properties here unmarketable."

The Mormons purchased the land July 25, paying the owners $3.6 million for about 1 acre of land and a three-story, single-family brick house. In the next 18 months, the Mormons plan to remove the house and build a meetinghouse that would accommodate Sunday services for about 150 members from Brookline and the Back Bay, who currently attend a church in Roslindale with 300 other members, said Clayton Christensen, a Harvard business professor who oversees the church's activities in New England.

The new church will also accommodate a meeting of Mormon teenagers one night a week, he said.

The Mormon church is one of the fastest-growing religions and has about 12.5 million members worldwide. In Massachusetts, the church has about 16,000 members, up from about 12,000 a decade ago, said Christensen. In Brookline and the Back Bay, the number of members has more than tripled in the last 10 years, he said. Massachusetts has about 50 Mormon churches, he said.

Christensen said the church will complement the neighborhood, not disrupt it. "The landscaping will be beautiful," he said.

But Oster and a group of his neighbors fear that the opposite is true. On Saturday morning, gathered on Catlin Road, where the meetinghouse will be, many of them evoked the towering white granite colossus of Belmont's Mormon temple, whose 139-foot steeple was a point of contention, leading to lawsuits between the Mormon church and some residents. The steeple was finally erected in 2001.

"It seems like they tend to build on a pretty grand scale," said Dan Miller, a retired president of marketing and sales at Dexter Shoes.

Fisher Hill Estates residents who access their townhouses from the privately owned Catlin Road worried that on Sundays, churchgoers will block the narrow street and residents will not be able to come and go freely.

Jonathan Richardson, whose family's sprawling 17th-century estate on Boylston Street abuts the other side of the Mormon property, worried that construction would disrupt the landscape.

Dan Pollets, a psychologist, said the historic value of the neighborhood will be diminished by the presence of a contemporary church.

"Imagine if amid all this history comes a huge, monolithic structure," Pollets said.

Christensen said that most Mormon meetinghouses are not as imposing as the Belmont temple, which presides atop the Concord Turnpike from an 8-acre lot. In Revere, the church is a low, red-brick structure with a black-and-white steeple. Jacy Thompson, a Mormon planning analyst for the Northeastern United States, said the Brookline meetinghouse may be even smaller because the plot of land on Catlin Road is smaller than the 4-acre lots the Mormons usually purchase.

Thompson and Christensen said they do not have a design for the new church yet.

Gil Hoy, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said the Mormons, like all churches and educational institutions in Massachusetts, are exempt from zoning laws and can build any structure on their land. But he cautiously suggested that church members consult the residents before they begin construction.

"In Brookline we certainly pride ourselves on the diversity of our community, but we hope and expect the Mormon church to be sensitive to the neighborhood concerns," Hoy said.

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