No go for 33-foot guru statue in Woodland Valley

Shandaken building inspector and zoning code officer Howie McGowan told the members of the Woodland Community Association (WCA) that the 33-foot statue Sanjay Rawal proposes to erect in Woodland Valley is not permissible under the town’s building code. At the WCA’s annual meeting on July 13, McGowan said Rawal had submitted a site plan for the structure, a monument to deceased guru Sri Chinmoy, earlier in the month, and he has the right to appeal McGowan’s ruling by going to the town zoning board of appeals.

The WCA has been expressing objections to the statue since 2017, when then building inspector Warren Tutt reported that the town code contained “no statutes against statues.” Since then, McGowan, his successor, has noted the property is located in the R5 zone, the most restrictive of the town’s residential zones, which forbids the construction of a “Church or other place of worship” as well as  “Cultural facilities (library, art gallery, museum, etc.), institutions and philanthropic uses.” No special permit can be applied for in these categories, according to the code. Given that the statue is a work of art devoted to a religious figure, McGowan believes that, although statues themselves are not addressed, this project would fall under one or both of the categories indicated.

When objections to the statue were raised, “Sanjay was concerned there might be racism involved,” said McGowan, “but I assured him, in my office, there’s no racism but there are zoning codes.”


On July 16, McGowan sent Rawal and his attorney copies of a formal written rejection of the application. As of August 14, the town has not received a reply. Rawal is free to contest the rejection by appealing to the ZBA. Such a process could be drawn out over the course of years, said McGowan, with appeals, public hearings, and possible lawsuits.

Rawal was not present at the WCA meeting, but at last year’s meeting, he spoke extensively about the project. He assured members the statue would be difficult to access, would not be visible from the road or another property, and would not attract busloads of disciples, coming to pay homage to their guru. Despite his willingness to make a written agreement with the association, specifying rules for visitation that allow only small groups of his friends by specific invitation, neighbors expressed fears that such a document would not prevent what they see as a possible invasion of the quiet, rural valley.  

The 34-acre property in question is owned by a trust, Illumine Services, administered by Rawal, who works as a civilian contractor on humanitarian projects run by the U.S. government and is also a maker of activist documentaries. Because the land is steep and in the New York City watershed, McGowan said the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has already expressed concerns. It’s also within 500 feet of the state forest preserve, so the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) would most likely be involved in examining the project. 

Rawal was contacted by Woodstock Times but declined to comment.

Dean statue mystery

In other statue news, the Woodstock Times was among the recipients of a post card announcing plans to construct a 16-foot statue of late developer Dean Gitter in Shandaken. An organization calling itself “Friends of Dean” invites people to “join us in honoring the man who put Shandaken on the map” by submitting memories of Gitter to be read aloud and memorialized in a time capsule in the base of the structure. A ceremony is scheduled for 10 a.m. on August 31. No location is specified for the statue, aside from “Route 28,” but the return address matches that of the Emerson Resort established by Gitter on Route 28 in Mount Tremper.

Tamara Murray, director of marketing at the Emerson, said no one at the resort knows the source of the invitation or has heard any news about the statue aside from the statements on the post card. Gitter’s firm Crossroads Ventures has been working towards construction of the controversial Belleayre Resort in western Shandaken for over 17 years.  ++