County denies permit for Hindu temple

This is a rendering of the proposed Hindu temple near Lake Lanier. County commissioners denied a zoning request to allow its construction.
This is a rendering of the proposed Hindu temple near Lake Lanier. County commissioners denied a zoning request to allow its construction.
FORSYTH COUNTY, Ga. — Citing traffic, decreasing property values and a burden for neighbors, the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners unanimously denied a zoning change Feb. 14 that would have allowed a Hindu temple near Lake Lanier.

The applicant, Satoor Sumalatha, had sought permission to build a temple, totaling 11,200 square feet, with 109 parking spaces and a 4,128-square-foot priest’s residence on 7.6 acres.

The property is located off 5325 Pilgrim Point Road near Lake Lanier.
In her 2016 letter of intent, Sumalatha said there is a need and demand for Hindu religious centers in this area of the county, due to an emerging and increasing number of persons practicing the faith.

“Currently, there is a limited availability for such centers in the county generally, and in this area of the county in particular,” she said. “There are a large number of religious facilities for other faiths.”

Right now the area is zoned single family residential restricted, which allows for apartments, recreational facilities, single-family homes and major subdivisions. Sumalatha was seeking a conditional use permit, which is granted for specific locations as long as it conforms to other land uses in the area.

District 5 Commissioner Laura Semanson said as the elected official for that area, she visited the site, attended the applicant’s public participation meeting in July 2016 and met with the applicant’s attorney and the residents.

“There has been much speculation as to the motivations of the applicant and to those who’ve expressed opposition,” Semanson said. “But it’s important to set aside the unknown and speculative and base our decision on facts. For a number of reasons, not limited to the unanimous recommendation of denial by the Planning Commission, the existence of community covenants, the scope and scale of the proposal with respect to the surrounding community and its impact, I move to deny.”

She listed specific reasons for denying including, the intensive use:
•Is inappropriate for development within a residential subdivision.
•Is inconsistent with the existing use and zoning of nearby properties.
•Will significantly burden adjoining and nearby properties.
•Will significantly burden the value of adjoining and nearby properties.
•Is prohibited by applicable convents.
•Will burden traffic and roadside safety.
•Is inappropriate and inconsistent with other general and special considerations in the unified development code.

Neighbors who live near the proposed development echoed those points, saying the temple would create more traffic in the neighborhood and lead to higher levels of noise. They also said the area isn’t big enough for the anticipated parking.

One public commenter, Susan Sanner said the applicant didn’t take into account the homeowner’s association and covenants rules.

“Claiming a need for a religious building in this particular area does not mean there are more suitable properties within close proximity that will not negatively affect the neighbors’ current way of life,” Sanner said. “Approval of this proposal would show the government is favoring Sumaltha’s religious rights over our fundamental and property rights.”

In her letter of intent, Sumaltha said she chose this area because she “felt her inner peace retuning the moment she set foot on the ground of the property.”

She traveled to India recently and visited a couple of holy places. That inspired her to want to build this property near a lake cottage she already had.

“The power of those places to provide inner peace reminded me of the Cumming property which I have been renting for the past few years,” she said. “Realizing that the place has powerful energy similar to places of pilgrimage, I decided to share it with the community and this idea was born.”

However, Sumalatha said she anticipated the denial and intends on taking the issue to federal court.

Her attorney, Stuart Teague with Teague and Chambless, LLLP, said since 2014, this is the first zoning like this to be denied.

She believes this goes past a zoning issue and is truly a religious issue. She intended to build a temple for the Hindu goddess Kamakshi, which Sumaltha said would have been the first temple of its kind worshipping this goddess in the United States.

“This is a peaceful worship place and an opportunity for everyone to come together,” she said. “The misunderstanding (of the religion) is what’s causing a division. We need to clarify the misunderstanding and get unified to get this taken care of and the building built as a place of peace.”