By Hiroko Sato
GROTON -- Once upon a time in the village of Shirdi in Western India, there was said to be a spiritual leader called Sai who attracted followers with his message of faith and tolerance.
He would help his devotees to find wisdom in themselves and cure sick patients by putting ashes on their foreheads.
Nearly 160 years later in Greater Lowell, people who find inspiration in these tales and the teaching of Sai are calling one temple their home of faith in growing numbers. And they hope to develop 28.3 acres of wooded land off Route 119 just across the Littleton town line, which was once slated for a controversial affordable-condo subdivision, into a stately temple campus to accommodate their spiritual needs.
Once built, Shri Shirdi Sai Baba Temple will be a peaceful and welcoming place for not only its members but the community, hosting various charitable projects, said President Mahender Singh, president of New England Shirdi Sai Parivaar, the organization that is constructing the temple. Some abutters say they are accepting of the idea of having a Hindu temple in their neighborhood -- except that they are concerned about the size of the facility.
"I first thought, 'Cool,' " Sunset Road resident Leslie Lathrop, whose house abuts the project site, said of her initial reaction to the news about the potential Hindu temple project. She then went online to see the rendering of the future Shri Shirdi campus.
"That's when I freaked out about the scale of the thing," Lathrop said.
Barbara Dunn, who lives on Hartwell Avenue in Littleton, a short walk from the site, said she believes the organization has every right to build the temple.
But, "I don't think they need something this big," Dunn said, looking at a copy of the rendering.
The Sai Parivaar has operated from a 5,800-square-foot rented space in a single-story building at 290 Littleton Road in Chelmsford for the past three years. The new two-story facility in Groton would have 8,000 to 10,000 square feet of space, complete with a prayer hall that can seat 400 to 500 people on the floor, classrooms, a meditation room, a library and a kitchen. The two-story structure will be 70 to 80 feet tall, including the golden domes atop the building. The site is behind some homes along Boston Road, or Route 119, between Jane's Drive in Littleton and Sunset Road in Groton. Of 28.3 acres, 2.5 acres are in Littleton, according to Singh.
The temple membership has steadily grown from 30 families in August 2006, when they held their first worship in a 1,000-square-foot space in a Dracut office complex, to 3,000 families currently, according to Singh. Singh, who lives in Westford, said Greater Lowell is a convenient central location for the members who come from all across New England. To find their permanent home, temple leaders looked for land that is close to a highway, he said.
The Groton site is the former location of the now-defunct Oak Ridge Estates, a 36-unit affordable subdivision project by Matbob, Inc. of Westford. The developer and town planners wrangled over wetland and various other issues before the Zoning Board of Appeals approved a comprehensive permit for it in March 2005. While abutters' appealed the town's permit approval -- which was resolved in 2008 -- and the state's stagnant real-estate market kept Matbob from moving forward with the project, Town Meeting approved in October 2008 the town's proposal to buy the land that contains the largest vernal pool in Groton that is home to many rare species. The acquisition never took place, however, because it could not secure a necessary state grant despite applying for it three times, according to Conservation Administrator Barbara Ganem. Wetlands make up about one quarter of the land, Ganem said.
The Sai Parivaar estimates it will cost about $800,000 to acquire the land, which Matbob still owns, and $2.2 million to construct the temple, according to the information posted on the organization's website. Singh said the closing of the land deal will be contingent upon town permits necessary to build the facility.
The Sai Parivaar is preparing a detailed site plan and has not formally applied for any permits yet. When explaining the organization's intention to develop the land to the Planning Board on April 25, Michael Vaccaro, the project's builder and developer, vowed to avoid using objections that the Conservation Commission may have on wetland issues as a possible "intentional impediment" by town boards as cover for rejecting the project.
Singh said this week that the temple wants to be a peaceful neighbor. The temple often holds food drives and community kitchen events and provides free yoga classes to anyone from the public, all of which will continue at the Groton location, Singh said. The temple campus will have a 50-foot tree buffer all around it to create a serene atmosphere that the members look for, he added.
Lathrop, vice chair of the Groton Interfaith Council who also serves on the Groton-Dunstable Regional School Committee, said she welcomes diversity and has no objection to the temple construction or the architectural design in the rendering. But she is concerned that the temple will be so much more than a typical neighborhood church in size.
"I think it's out of scale," Lathrop said.
The temple holds its weekly mass on Thursday evenings, drawing up to 250 people. The temple expects 25 to 50 people maximum for other weekly activities, he said, adding that the 200 parking spaces should be more than enough even for several festivals it holds each year.
Religious organizations are exempt from property taxes. They also have the right to build in any neighborhood regardless of zoning restrictions. Their projects are subject to "reasonable regulation" under state law Chapter 40A, however, including local control over bulk and height, according to town Land Use Director Michelle Collette. Once the temple applies for permits and the hearing process gets under way, the town will notify all property owners within 300 feet from the site of the project, whether their properties are in Groton or Littleton, Collette said.
Maren Toohill, planning administrator and permit coordinator for Littleton, said she has not heard about the temple project. Whether it would require any Littleton permit depends on the actual proposal, Toohill said. The Oak Ridge project came before the Littleton Planning Board because it included an access roadway on the Littleton side, Toohill said.