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Appeals board rejects plan for Hindu temple in Howard County

Howard County's appeals board Thursday rejected a proposal for a 2,000-square-foot Hindu temple in Woodbine, providing relief to a vocal group of area residents who argued the temple would disturb the rural calm of Millers Mill Road.

The county's hearing examiner had denied the proposal last year in a 48-page decision.

In its 4-1 decision, the board ruled the plan, which would have included a prayer hall, driveway, a house for a priest and two dozen parking spaces, was not appropriate for the rural community. Naresh Das sought the approval on behalf of the Jagannath Temple of North America.

During their deliberations, board members cited concerns about the temple's impact on traffic and said they did not hear enough evidence the plan accommodated safe-sight distances on the 1.1-mile rural road.

Board member Genevievette Walker-Lightfoot also said she was especially concerned the temple would draw worshippers daily and on weekends, a pattern she said was unlike other religious facilities.

"This is an every-day issue as far as the intensity of the use and the number of people," she said.

James Howard, who cast the lone dissenting vote, said the county's planners could address any concerns about site distances during their review of the temple's site development plan and that the temple was not unique in drawing worshippers daily and on weekends.

"I've never seen a church that wasn't open every day," Howard said.

The board evaluates requests for conditional uses based on three criteria: harmony with the county's general plan, the intensity and scale of the use and any adverse impacts.

Residents opposing the plan argued the temple would interfere with the historic nature of the community and disrupt the "quiet and solitude" visitors seek when they visit Bushy Park Community Cemetery, which is just 150 yards from the property.

According to residents, the petitioner lost credibility by changing the scale of the temple over time, leaving little room for the community to believe the temple's prayer hall was designed for up to 100 worshippers.

Opponents also said the temple was too intense for the area because it would draw noise, additional traffic, daily worshippers and four annual Hindu celebrations, including two outdoor events with amplified music. Residents also said noise could also disturb horses at Misty Meadow Stables, which is near the proposed location of the temple.

Chris Bowen, a Woodbine resident, said the temple would draw congregants at the busiest times in the day on weekends and weekdays, creating "unsafe and unacceptable" conditions on a road where families often walk with their children.

While sympathetic of residents' concerns, Tom Coale, an attorney representing Das, lamented what he said was an exaggeration of the impact of the temple's congregants, who were simply seeking a place of worship in Howard County and would make "good neighbors."

"This is just about as small as you get with a religious facility," Coale said.

The temple, which would have been the first Hindu temple in the county, currently has about 15 to 20 active congregants, which would increase to up to 80 over the next several years, he said.

"It just doesn't make sense to [suggest] there is some underlying Hindu population waiting for this board to make this approval and then they are going to come out of the woodwork," Coale said.

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