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Boston Suburb Digs in Heels on Church Project

December 6, 1996

BELMONT, Mass. (AP) _ The Mormon Church has big plans for this fancy Boston suburb, and that’s why Julie Altshuler and other residents are so upset.

The church is planning a $30 million temple with six spires that would stand on a rock ledge 40 feet above a highway on one of the highest points in the area, making it visible from miles away.

``They have a right to build,″ Altshuler said. ``But they can build an adequate temple that will not tower above my house, the equivalent of a 25-story building.″

The proposed structure, at 94,000 square feet, is massive for a residential neighborhood. But what really rankles many residents is a church plan for a lighted, 139-foot-high steeple, one of the six spires.

The problem for the builders is getting the project off the ground.

Residents opposed to the plan and church officials have stood toe-to-toe for over a year at several zoning board meetings and more than 50 informal gatherings.

``This is a project that has divided the city,″ said Town Planning Coordinator Jeffrey Wheeler. ``There are some who feel the church should be allowed to build because there are not enough churches in a time of moral decline, and others who believe in the zoning laws.″

Also, this is New England, full of residents protective of its Norman Rockwell reputation of a white Congregationalist church in each town beneath a modest steeple in a quaint town square.

In Belmont, many people are alarmed at the prospect of the enormous tower.

``I don’t think this church or this design is considerate of the neighbors,″ said John Forster, whose home is just south of the temple site. ``It’s going to dominate the top of the hill.″

Grant Bennett, the Mormon bishop for the Belmont congregation, said he believes neighbors would be opposed to any structure.

``We have 8.9 acres of undeveloped woodland surrounded by very, very, expensive homes,″ he said. ``They plainly don’t want anything built.″

The Boston Temple would serve the estimated 5,000 Mormons in Boston as well as the roughly 40,000 in New England.

For area worshipers, the nearest temples are in Washington, D.C., and Toronto. There are 11,300 Mormon meetinghouses worldwide, but only 50 temples. The church, headquartered in Salt Lake City, has about 9 million members worldwide, many of whom are in Utah and other Western states.

Temples are set aside as holier buildings, used for sacrosanct events such as marriages, and closed even to some Mormons. Admission is allowed only to ``pure″ members who tithe and abstain from alcohol, tobacco and caffeine.

Schools and religious buildings are largely exempt from zoning regulations in Massachusetts. The battle lines in Belmont are drawn at the height of the planned temple’s steeples, which do not comply with town bylaws because they are all taller than 72 feet. The six planned spires range from 76 to 139 feet.

Bennett is seeking a special permit to allow the church to build anyway. He vowed the temple will be built, even if it takes 50 years.

Belmont’s Zoning Board of Appeals will debate again on Monday whether to grant the Mormons a special permit.

If the zoning board decides to not grant approval, the avenue of appeals is infinite, said lawyer Arthur Kreiger, hired by Altshuler and other neighbors to fight the temple.

``This could, conceivably, go on and on,″ he said.

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