Forsyth County Commissioners heard from the public for the second time about a permit for a planned religious center in west Forsyth.
The Forsyth County Board of Commissioners discussed the possible modifications of a conditional-use permit, or CUP, on a piece of property approved for a place of worship at 2010 Kelly Mill Road during a regular meeting Thursday, Sept. 16.
The board held the first public hearing about the issue on Aug. 19.
The applicant of the CUP, Hindu Center of Atlanta Inc., was approved to build a 9,355-square-foot place of worship with a priest’s residence and 81 parking spaces on 6.85 acres. Commissioners approved the application for the conditional-use permit in late 2019.
Since that approval, a land disturbance permit has not been filed for the property and, according to Fire Chief Barry Head, neither has a certificate of occupancy, or CO. Land disturbance permits, or LDP, are separate zonings to help facilitate sustainable growth through plan review. COs are documents issued by fire marshals certifying a building’s compliance with applicable standards and codes.
Those in favor of modifications
Ginger Vigneault, a resident of the neighborhood that “directly backs up” to the property in question, explained that while there has not been much noise coming from the property, the lights are bright.
Vigneault said that her house is situated a 10th of a mile, or 528 feet, from the property, and the “high-intensity” lights from the parking lot and structure shine into her house.
“I took one [photo] this past weekend that actually cast from the property through my deck doors, onto the door in my garage and cast a shadow of my hand on the door,” Vigneault said. “That’s how bright [the lights] are.”
Vigneault asked the board to consider modifications that could help her and other neighbors, like using an evergreen tree line as a buffer for lights. She also said that she prefers for the space to “not be utilized until [the problems are] fixed.”
Roger Seeholzer, another neighbor, said that he was concerned about the safety of the people that visit the property, especially after a fire in December of 2020 destroyed one of the secondary structures on the property, burning it to the ground.
Seeholzer agreed with Vigneault that he believed the property in question should not be used for assembly purposes until the problems have been addressed and people can safely gather.
Rupal Vaishnav, a neighbor next to the property, began by referencing an incident on Sunday, Sept. 12, when racially insensitive signs were placed near the intersection of Kelly Mill and Bethelview roads.
According to the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office, deputies responded to a call at 8:35 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 12 about “racist” signs containing “hate speech.” The responding officer found a sign on Kelly Mill Road containing the word “NO” and in the middle of the “O” was a red dot.
Other signs were found on Bethelview Road by passers-by and property owners.
The responding officer said the complainant that called about the signs “believed the signs were ‘racist’ and contained ‘hate speech’ in that they were targeting folks of Indian descent, specifically stating she believed the signs represented a derogatory term.”
Vaishnav said that the sings were “very disheartening” and that they were trying to “distract and detract” from the true purpose of modifications.
“In my opinion, having been exposed to this property, and I’m of the … Hindu faith …. It is not about the faith as much as it is about following rules and regulations,” Vaishnav said.
He corroborated Vigneault’s statements about the bright lights, saying the surrounding shrubbery does not help to minimize the bright beams.
“I do want folks to understand that this, in my opinion, … is not about trying to quash faith or a temple, because in this area alone I believe there are at least four to five temples of the Hindu faith,” Vaishnav said.
He said that he had also attended the first public hearing on Aug. 19 and spoken with a representative from Hindu Center of Atlanta Inc., about the issues. He said he and other neighbors were advised that the owner would contact them, but said he was not aware of anyone being contacted.
“I am not aware of any dialogue that has occurred or has even attempted to occur between our neighborhood and the Hindu Center of Atlanta,” Vaishnav said.
Those in opposition of modifications
Ethan Underwood, an attorney at Miles Hansford & Tallant, LLC., spoke on behalf of the owner, Hindu Center of Atlanta Inc.
He said that he had not been consulted on any of the new conditions that were presented, such as the prohibition of outdoor amplified speakers and rule that activity on the property could not continue until the building approved in the CUP is constructed and has received a CO.
Underwood also referenced the racially insensitive signs put up near the property over the weekend.
“We’ve now, at this very meeting, had to remind the community that the Indian community is welcome here because of racist signs that were placed on [Bethelview Road],” Underwood said. “Yet here we are now talking about adding significant zoning restrictions to a religious use that has never been applied to any church, mosque or synagogue.”
Underwood said that his client had filed an RLUIPA, Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, notice and a reservation of constitutional rights on Aug. 18.
He said the “client is trying to be a good neighbor” and would be willing to comply with certain modifications such as noise and luminescence caps.
According to Underwood, the condition stating that the property had to have a structure in order to use it for assembly did not “comply with the first amendment.”
Dhananjay Gupta, who is associated with the property, said that he was ready to address all of the problems, but that he never received a complaint from any neighbor since the temple has been in operation.
“I promise in front of all of you that anytime if any complaints are received by me, I will certainly address that,” Gupta said.
Gupta said that he and his friends had met with the complainants outside of the first public hearing in August to exchange phone numbers. He also said that his number was posted on the temple’s Facebook page in case anyone had an issue.
He requested, as a “responsible citizen of [Forsyth County],” that there should not be “any harsher or stricter conditions” placed upon this property.
Deen Chandora, who frequents the temple, worried that some photos or videos of lights and noise might be deceptive. He said that there were many trees around and that from the property, visitors could not see the surrounding subdivision.
“You cannot even see the subdivision houses from this dwelling,” he said. “So therefore, my request is please do come and verify what I say and see [for] yourself and hear [for] yourself before you make any decision.”
Many others that frequent the temple asked the board to treat the property fairly and not impose any “harsher” or “stricter” modifications to the CUP. Visitors said that it was a peaceful place where they could do meditations and classes, and they wanted to “accommodate everybody.”
Discussion and decision
Regarding the topic of safety and the fire that occurred in December, Scott Anderson, a fire investigator, said that the auxiliary property that burned had been using drop cords that “came down from the lights.”
According to Anderson, the fire did not look like it was intentionally set and instead, began as a result of an electrical issue in the ceiling.
“It appears to us, both the other investigator and myself, that this fire started up in the ceiling … and burned the roof off,” Anderson said.
“We have no indication that there was an incendiary fire here,” he said. “And since [the fire], we’ve had no one come up to us and tell us that they’ve got information to share with us….”
District 3 Commissioner Todd Levent asked Head if there was a CO on the remaining building or a fire permit. Head said that to his knowledge, the property held neither.
“So this property has been used illegally then,” Levent said.
During discussion, the item was postponed until the end of the meeting so that Underwood and his client could review the conditions presented.
After reviewing the conditions, Underwood said that his client was agreeable to all conditions except for a few.
One such condition was the prohibition of “exterior amplified speakers or microphones” on the property.
Underwood argued that the owner should be allowed to use speakers as long as they complied with the county’s noise ordinance.
Another condition the client opposed was the condition that “there shall be no activity on the property, other than maintenance, until the building approved in the CUP is constructed and has received the CO.”
County Attorney Ken Jarrard said that he could offer “some language” to help modify the condition so that it was more agreeable for both sides, but he could not “make it up on the fly.”
Chairwoman Cindy Jones Mills suggested an additional condition that would require both parties to meet with one another to “avoid some of this miscommunication.”
She proposed a requirement for the owner of the property to meet with the abutting HOA either once or twice a year so that issues could be resolved without having to come before the BOC.
“Things are so much better when you talk to each other than when you bring it to the board,” Mills said.
“You wind up liking each other a lot more than you dislike each other when you have communication,” she said.
After discussion, commissioners decided to postpone the decision until the meeting on Thursday, Oct. 7. No additional public hearing will be held.
Regarding the signs
During announcements, District 2 Commissioner Alfred John took some time to talk about the racially insensitive signs placed on Kelly Mill Road over the weekend.
“The placement of these signs implies that it is targeted towards people of Indian origin and towards a property that was in consideration for the future site of a Hindu temple,” John said.
“The Indian community is part of a diverse, growing population of Forsyth County, and I am proud to be counted as one among them,” he said. “We are your doctors, nurses, attorneys, small business owners and proprietors, software engineers, teachers, scientists and in this case, your county commissioner.”
John said that he, alongside the population of those of Indian descent in the county, were “not shaken, rattled or intimidated by this act,” and he was proud of the community members and officials for condemning these acts and took the time to remove the signs.
John also said that he had personally spoken to Sheriff Ron Freeman who was “concerned” about the display and was investigating the incident.
After reaching out to the FCSO, Freeman said that he “fully [agreed]” with everything John said.