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Mormon meeting house proposal approved

Posted by Tom Coakley  April 29, 2010 11:38 PM

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The Brookline Zoning Board approved a proposed Mormon meeting house late Thursday despite objections by neighbors and some local politicians that the building will be too big.

The meeting house would be located at 603 Boylston Street, also known as Route 9. The Mormon church bought the property in 2007 and has said it needs to build the meeting house to alleviate overcrowding at other meeting houses in the Boston area.

Mormon officials have said they have changed their plans to accommodate concerns by the neighbors but neighbors and local politicians say the proposed building is still too big for the lot which is just over an acre.

Church officials have said that ideally construction on the new meetinghouse would begin this summer.

The church needed a special permit from the Zoning Board, in part because the meetinghouse is larger than local zoning laws allow. The building will be 33 feet tall with a 72-foot steeple, underground parking for about 150 vehicles and an entrance off Boylston Street.

Maurice Hiers, president of the church’s Boston Stake, which is akin to a diocese, has told the zoning board that the church realized several years ago it needed a new meetinghouse to accommodate a growing membership.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has about 28,000 members in New England and has been growing steadily in recent years. Every Sunday, services for up to three congregations are held in each of the Boston stake’s chapels, according to church officials.

In 2007, the church purchased the property at 603 Boylston St. and in recent weeks demolished a multi-million home on the property to make room for the meetinghouse. Two congregations will meet in the building each Sunday.

But from the outset, neighbors voiced opposition to the church designs for the meetinghouse.

More than 500 people, including neighbors, about 80 Town Meeting members and some local legislators signed on to a letter asking the Zoning Board to reject the meetinghouse design, which they argued was too big for a lot that is only slightly larger than an acre.

Arthur Kreiger, and attorney hired by seven neighbors along Catlin Road next to the meetinghouse site, said neighbors have no objection to the church worshiping on the site, but the size of the building is too big.

“[The Latter-day Saints] simply bought too small a lot for this building,” Kreiger said.
Gill Fishman, a Town Meeting member who lives near the meetinghouse site, said the church should not be allowed to build something that is not allowed under Brookline zoning laws.

“We need you to stay within the laws,” Fishman said. “No one should be allowed to break the law.”

But Zoning Board member Jonathan Book said he believed that applying one local zoning law to the church proposal could put the town in violation of the Dover Amendment.

The local law passed in 2006 established a formula for measuring the square footage of any building with ceilings higher than 12 feet. The formula can artificially increase the actual square footage of a building.

Polly Selkoe, the town’s assistant director of planning regulations, said the law was designed to prevent the development of “McMansions,” but did not exclude other buildings, including churches, that have high ceilings.

With cathedral ceilings throughout its proposed chapel, much of the Mormon meetinghouse was subject to the law, and as a result the square footage of the building was much higher than zoning laws allowed.

But Hiers told the zoning board at a hearing April 15 that the ceilings of Mormon chapels are lofty so that members can feel the “ascension to heaven” when they worship.

Richard Hedberg, a real estate project manager for the church, said Thursday that if the church built a smaller meetinghouse it would soon be too crowded and the congregations would not be able to worship the way they would like.

“We don’t want to waste money on a building that is too small to meet our needs,” Hedberg said.

Because of the religious significance of cathedral ceilings in Mormon meetinghouses, Book said he believes applying the formula that would penalize the the proposal for the high ceilings would violate state law.

“We have a provision of the zoning bylaw… that has a direct and adverse impact on a religious use,” Book said.

Book and board members Jesse Geller and Mark Zuroff voted to approve the meetinghouse plan.

Kreiger declined comment on the decision Thursday night.

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