Zoning Board Gives Preliminary Approval To 21,000-Square-Foot Temple On South Middlebush Road

A rendering of the updated site plan for the Dada Bhagwan Institute on South Middlebush Road.

A year of hearings brought some closure to an application on October 21 when the Zoning Board of Adjustment gave preliminary site plan approval to a 21,000-square-foot Hindu temple targeted for a parcel on South Middlebush Road.

Board member Alan Rich was the only member to cast a “no” vote for the application, submitted by the Dada Bhagwan Vignan Institute. The project is set to be built on a 16-acre parcel adjacent to Snyder’s Farm.

The application was opposed by the Snyder family and the owners of a house whose property also abuts the temple’s tract.

The Zoning Board’s preliminary approval was for the temple’s site plan, and it also granted several bulk variances – for side yard setbacks – that were necessitated when the temple’s developers agreed to township planning staff’s request that the temple be moved further away from the Snyder’s property line than had been originally proposed.

Ironically, had the temple developer not agreed to that move, they would not have had to appear before the Zoning Board at all.

The October 21 session was to show Zoning Board members the updated site plan, which included all of the changes to which the developer agreed during the preceding 10 hearings.

Temple attorney Peter Lanfrit said he did that because some Board members said they were not comfortable with voting on the site plan without seeing the changes in place.

In addition to moving the temple away from the Snyder’s property line, the developer also agreed to relocate the driveway fronting on South Middlebush Road so it would be further away from the farm, create buffering with trees and hedgerows at various points around the property, made sure a parking lot at the front of the property was hidden from the view of the homes near it, and install a six-foot-tall fence along the Snyder’s property line to deter people from wandering into their fields.

Once the Board memorializes the preliminary approval, the temple will have to return for yet another hearing for final site plan approval, with the project’s updated site plan incorporating all of the changes referred to in the preliminary approval.

Several township residents called in to the virtual meeting to register their opposition to the project.

Barbara Lawrence said that she was opposed to the project because it contradicts teh township’s Master Plan goal of “keeping rural areas rural.”

“Building this structure, even with all of the accommodations, will interfere … with the master plan and the underlying more specific plan,” she said. “This is a township designated scenic corridor, the historic preservation plan notes that the historic character of the town is rooted in its agrarian ancestry …”

“That theme of keeping rural areas rural is, to my mind, an overriding thing,” she said. “I know the applicant here has … been responsive to all requests and tried to mitigate any change in the environment, but it still is taking away potentially open space or agricultural land.”

Barbara ten Broeke said the application “steals open space; it steals the agricultural landscape and it’s an intrusion on the preserved historic properties on South Middlebush Road.”

Ten Broeke tried to read a resolution from the Meadows Foundation, which opposed the project, but Lanfrit objection, that it was improper for resolutions to be introduced into Zoning Board hearings, was upheld by the Board attorney.

Jim Johnston, who has called in frequently to Board meetings as well as Township Council meetings to oppose the project, said the application should be denied because the land may be needed for farming in case there is a food shortage.

“We have to maintain the agrarian environment that Franklin has always had,” he said.

Leah Convery said that full funding for the project should be secured before construction begins, in case the temple should run out of money before it is finished.

“Once you cut into this piece of land, if it gets abandoned, it’s going to be a problem,” she said. “No one wants to see an eyesore, and if this project gets abandoned in the middle of it … there’s no making it go back to the way it was. If you’re going to pull the trigger on this project, make sure it goes all the way through.”

Michael Bell, a trustee of the Millstone Valley Preservation Coalition, said the project is “detriment to one of the last vestiges of the rural history of Franklin Township.”

“There are some small strip malls that are smaller than this,” he said.

Referencing another temple that is planned for South Middlebush Road, across teh street from the Institute, Bell said, “A question to consider is whether either of these massive facilities will deliver another blow, possibly mortal, to the continuance of active farming in the township.”

“Granting these variances and allowing this large structure to be built would … degrade the safety and tranquility of this neighborhood,” he said.

There was at least one supporter of the project listening.

Babu Veeregowba of West Windsor said that the Institute had “bent backward to live up to all rules and regulations … to make sure the scenic corridor has been maintained and preserved. This project does not bring any adverse impact … the Board should really be proud to approve this project.”

Lanfrit said construction on the project could start in the Spring, and be completed within a year.

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