Monday, August 17, 2009

Should Mass. Mormon leaders use the Dover Amendment?

Much of the Bloggernacle took note when a venerable LDS chapel in Cambridge, Massachusetts caught fire and burned in May of this year. The unavailability of that chapel exacerbated a crowding problem in the Boston Stake. In another Boston suburb, Brookline, the Mormon Church has been attempting to build a new chapel for the past two years. The Boston Stake purchased the land in 2007 but experienced severe criticism from neighbors, even after agreeing to several design changes. Eventually the Brookline Preservation Commission issued an 18-month stay on the project to protect a historic house on the property.

That stay expires in November, and Mormon leaders in the Boston area now face a choice: do they continue to seek community approval and cooperation with the building project, or do they go forward in spite of the opposition? The Mormon Church's common practice has been to work with neighbors, and that is clearly a good policy for fostering goodwill and community involvement. But the LDS Church hasn't always been able to reach an agreement with neighbors. The best example of such disagreements was the contentious building of the LDS Boston Temple. Neighbors filed a lawsuit against the LDS Church and the temple was dedicated without a steeple. Eventually the Massachusetts Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling and allowed the steeple to be constructed, nearly a year after the temple was dedicated.

The Boston Temple must be on the minds of Mormon leaders as they prepare to make their case to the community a second time. The other thing on their minds is likely a law commonly referred to as the "Dover Amendment" (Massachusetts General Law 40A § 3).  Among other things, the Dover Amendment exempts religious organizations from certain zoning restrictions. If neighbors to the proposed chapel continue to fight the project, Mormon leaders could choose to ignore the protests and build the way they want to. Another Brookline congregation, the Korean Church of Boston, proved this point last year when they built a towering gray monolith addition to a traditional old church. Planning Commission officials saw the designs and didn't like them, but since the Korean Church was exempted from the zoning restrictions they could not oppose the project.

Neighborhood criticism of the proposed Mormon chapel hasn't abated since 2007. Gill Fishman, president of the Fisher Hill Neighborhood Association, insists that the design is ugly and that the chapel is too big. Even still, I consider it unlikely at this point that Boston Stake leaders will avail themselves of the Dover Amendment. In addition to the cost in goodwill to the community, it could result in a lawsuit similar to the one that delayed the Boston Temple steeple, further delaying the construction. But Brookline neighbors may have to acknowledge that when push comes to shove, they don't have a choice.
Photo credit: bunkosquad.