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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Merrimack resident sues town over church

By JAKE BERRY

Staff Writer

MERRIMACK – Town officials are heading back to court once again over the Jehovah’s Witnesses church proposed in Merrimack.

Resident Robert Walles, who lives across the street from the 63 Wire Road property approved for a Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall, has filed a lawsuit against the town over the zoning board’s approval of the project.

The board, which initially denied the project in September 2010, overturned its decision and voted in November to grant a special exception for the project. But, with the lawsuit, Walles alleges board members based their decision more on a lawsuit ongoing with the congregation rather than on the merits of the project.

“I contend that the members of the zoning board, during non-public and illegal meetings ... were told to grant the Special Exception to mitigate the potential costs of defending the pending lawsuit,” Walles wrote in the lawsuit, filed last month in Hillsborough County Superior Court in Nashua. “This vote was made under duress and therefor should be overturned.”

The town’s history with the Kingdom Hall dates to 2010, when the Merrimack congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses first brought the matter before the Zoning Board.

Board members initially denied the proposal in September 2010, citing traffic, lighting and other concerns. But the board reversed its decision a year later in the face of a lawsuit filed by the congregation. “We’d spend a million dollars, and we’d lose (the lawsuit) anyway,” board member Phil Straight said at the time.

Walles tried to appeal the board’s decision, but in February, members denied his request for re-hearing, and in February, the planning board offered conditional approval of the project, allowing the congregation to move forward.

Congregation elders have not yet done much work on the site, only re-locating a gazebo on the former farmland, according to Ralph Randall, the congregation’s project development director. They’re working to acquire all the necessary permits, and they hope to start construction within several weeks, Randall said.

Once construction begins, the church could be up and running within two to three months, he said.

“We don’t have a set timeline,” Randall said. “We’ll have to see how it goes.”

Neither Town Manager Eileen Cabanel nor Town Attorney Matt Upton could be reached Friday for comment, but Tim Thompson, Merrimack’s director of community development, said the pending lawsuit does not prohibit the congregation from moving forward with construction, but any work done on the land is done at the congregation’s own risk, and, if they lose the lawsuit, they may have to restore the land completely, Thompson said.

In regard to the court case, town officials are required to file a plea by May 3, according to court documents, and both parties could appear before a judge by the end of the summer, Walles said. Until then, he plans to work with other neighbors and project opponents to raise money to cover the legal fees.

“Like I said before, it’s nothing about the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It could be any church,” Walles said. “It’s just not the right place.”

Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or jberry@nashuatelegraph.com.