Hindu temple barred in Chandler opens issue - East Valley Tribune: News

Hindu temple barred in Chandler opens issue

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Posted: Thursday, October 16, 2008 5:34 pm | Updated: 11:41 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

A group of Chandler homeowners won a lawsuit to prevent the construction of a Hindu temple in their neighborhood, and now the question is whether there will be any public worship allowed in the house on the property.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Glenn Davis ruled in September that deed restrictions for the Clemens Place subdivision "preclude the construction of the proposed center."

The judge rejected the arguments of the Sujnana Religious and Charitable Foundation, owner of the property at the southwest corner of Galveston Street and Dobson Road, that the deed restrictions were invalid because most of the original signers in 1975 didn't own their property at the time they signed.

The ruling does not become final until he enters a judgment, and the homeowners have asked him in court documents to declare that using the house on the property as a public place of worship also is a violation of the deed restrictions and to keep Sujnana from using it for that.

J. Ernest Baird, attorney for the homeowners, said the judge's ruling implies there will not be public worship allowed. But Baird specifically asked for that restriction in his proposed order of judgment because there have been gatherings at the house and traffic in the neighborhood that he understands is connected to worship services.

Sujnana's attorney, Troy Stratman, and Baird said the case began as a disagreement over the land use, but it is evolving into a religious issue.

"It seems to be way outside the scope and the ability even under the Constitution to prohibit someone from worshiping on their property," Stratman said.

Five Clemens Place homeowners filed the lawsuit challenging the temple because of the deed restrictions. Only two returned calls to the Tribune, and they declined to be interviewed.

The temple's priest also did not return a call seeking comment.

The City Council gave approval in June 2007 for a special use permit allowing Sujnana to build the Sri Venkata Krishna Religious and Cultural Center, a 7,500-square-foot place of worship.

"There were deed restrictions, so the city's approval did not come into play here," Stratman said.

Plans called for it to resemble a 12th-century Hindu temple in Udupi, India, and included a 40-foot tower as part of the facade. But the property owners agreed to a more contemporary look in exchange for the special permit.

The home that sits on the property now would have been bulldozed to make way for the temple.

The property, which was purchased and deeded over to Sujnana in 2006, is the gateway home to Clemens Place, which has nine lots.

According to city documents, neighbors objected to the temple on grounds that its use was incompatible and the architecture was out of character with the neighborhood.

Neighbors also argued that it would generate too much traffic and would lower property values for the surrounding neighborhoods, and that allowing a place of worship would set a precedent and allow further commercial development to encroach.

"It's creating the kind of condition none of us want to face when we're buying into a residential area," Baird said.

The property is surrounded by residential neighborhoods on three sides, but across Dobson are a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints church, a medical and office building, and a post office.

Baird said the LDS church was barely mentioned in the yearlong case, but he is concerned it may be used as a point of religious discrimination in further court proceedings, which it shouldn't.

"The other church wasn't deed-restricted, and it wasn't in our neighborhood," Baird said.

Baird said that gatherings at the property began almost immediately after the council approval.

He sent Sujnana a letter in September 2007 bringing the deed restrictions to the organization's attention.

The homeowners filed suit in November 2007.

Stratman said the decision on whether to appeal the judge's ruling will come after they have litigated attorney's fees.

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