//Smaller temple, bigger problems

Smaller temple, bigger problems

By GEORGE CHIDI, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Published on: 06/18/06

As one Hindu group builds a large new temple on Lawrenceville Highway in Lilburn, a second group wants to build a similar temple a mile or so down the road.

Both temples are modeled on ones in India and Europe. The second temple would be less than half as big as the one now under construction but otherwise a near duplicate of the first one.

Ritesh Desai, a spokesman for one of the Hindu groups, likens the situation to two Baptist congregations building new churches on the same road.

"Some people have taken this more or less as a rivalry or a competition," said Desai, a spokesman for the organization that is building the temple now under construction in the city of Lilburn. "It's just a way of each group representing their faith."

Plans for the second temple have hit a snag, however.

Gwinnett County planning officials say the temple is too big for its commercial neighborhood and it doesn't fit in.

Why is a huge temple OK but a smaller one too large? Location, location, location.

The 27,000-square-foot temple now under construction is located within the city limits of Lilburn; the second, 13,000-square-foot temple is proposed for four acres just outside the city limits, in Gwinnett County.

So the builders of the second temple need to win approval from county officials, something they have not yet be able to do.

Gwinnett County planning board members earlier this month recommended denial of a zoning variance needed to build the temple. The county commission takes it up later this month.

"Although there are other [office and business] properties in the area, none of them are developed on as large a scale as this proposal," the planning department wrote in its report objecting to a change in zoning conditions needed to build the temple.

The current zoning also requires the property to be compatible with other buildings in the neighborhood and to minimize the impact of any development on the building's surroundings, according to the planning department report. In 2004, county planners promised residents of the area that "any future office buildings would be consistent with the traditional architectural style in the area."

Ramesh Suhagia, an engineer and trustee of the Swaminarayan Satsang Mandir of Atlanta, which proposes building the smaller temple, says some members of his congregation reject any possibility that the county's objections stem from religious bigotry.

But he himself isn't sure. The need to meet traditional architectural style in Gwinnett County would be a high hurdle for a Hindu temple, he said. "If that is the case, then no matter where in Gwinnett County we decide to build our temple with religious tradition, we'll never get the permit to build a temple. … And that means we don't have freedom to exercise our religion in a traditional way."

Both Hindu groups say the temples are needed to serve the growing South Asian population in metro Atlanta. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated about 49,000 Asian Indians lived in metro Atlanta in 2004, although many are not Hindu.

Spokesmen say the 200-member congregation building the Gwinnett County temple and the 500-member Clarkston-based group building the Lilburn temple hold similar beliefs.

"They believe in the same god. In our case, the philosophy is a little different," Desai said.

The Swaminarayan branch of Hinduism originated with the 18th-century spiritual leader Bhagwan Swaminarayan. Leaders say there are now more than a million Swaminarayan followers worldwide.