The Shandaken Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) decided to open a public hearing on the petition of Sanjay Rawal challenging zoning officer Howie McGowan’s rejection of his request for a permit to build a 35-foot statue of spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy on private property in Woodland Valley. On September 18, ZBA members voted unanimously to hear from the public at their next regular meeting on Wednesday, October 16, at 7 p.m.
Rawal said he had been told in 2017 by the previous zoning officer, Warren Tutt, that the zoning code had no regulations regarding statues, so there shouldn’t be a problem with the monument, which he went ahead and had fabricated in China at great expense. Woodland Valley residents fear the statue will attract large numbers of the deceased leader’s devotees, altering the character of the quiet, rural area.
Ron Pordy, Rawal’s attorney, described the statue’s proposed location as secluded and not visible to neighbors or from the roadway. “It makes no noise, does not emit lights, will not be illuminated, makes no mechanical motion,” said Pordy. “It’s for the personal use of Sanjay and the Illumine Service foundation,” the non-profit that owns the property and has “three members at this point.”
Pordy observed that the region already has the Zen Mountain Monastery and the Menla retreat center, suggesting that the statue would not be out of character for the neighborhood. “A lot more invasive uses are permitted” in the R5 residential zone where the property is located, he said, including “country clubs, golf clubs, contractors’ yards, radio and TV towers. It will not be open to the public. It’s hard to get to, except by the driveway constructed by the foundation. And a not-for-profit membership club is a permitted use.”
To explain his ruling, McGowan stated, “I didn’t feel it was appropriate for R5. Menla and the Zen monastery predate the zoning code, and they’re grandfathered in. Cultural facilities, libraries, art galleries, museums, and institutions are not permitted. A non-profit is allowed by special use permit. He says it’s not seen from the roads, but I haven’t seen proof. What happens when the leaves are down? What about hiking trails? How many people want to see a 35-foot bronze statue of a person [while hiking in the woods]?” McGowan said because the application is described as being for “a garden and a work of art,” he felt it should be classified as a cultural facility.
Pordy said the project had already been vetted and approved by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. “As a not-for-profit membership organization, the application should be before the planning board, and they can set conditions. The question is whether the public will overrun the property, but it won’t be open to the public.”
Part-time Woodland Valley resident Gail Margulis told the ZBA she lives in Jamaica Hills, where the Sri Chinmoy Foundation has its headquarters. “He has said Illumine has three members, but he’s associated with the Sri Chinmoy Foundation, which has thousands of members. They gravitate to Jamaica Hills on vacations. People all over the world have made donations to the statue, so they will want to see it.”
“My own religious beliefs should be separated from any determination by the ZBA,” declared Rawal.
ZBA member Joe Michaels questioned such structural issues as wind loads and plans for field welding the hollow cast bronze structure. Architect Jess Walker, who designed the base for the statue, said he could supply engineering drawings. “It’s kind of an off-the-wall project,” Michaels remarked.
“If the statue is put in place, and people want to come and honor it,” said ZBA member Mark Loete, “if people start driving up Woodland Valley, what are you going to do?”
Rawal said that when he met last year with the Woodland Community Association, he had agreed to sit down with members of that group to impose conditions.
“We’re just looking ahead to unintended consequences,” said Loete.
“That’s valid,” Rawal replied, “and there’s a place and time for that discussion.”
Pordy said his client was there asking for an interpretation of the code. If the ZBA decided the statue was legal, it would be appropriate to discuss conditions during site plan approval with the planning board.
ZBA member Rolf Reiss said the public hearing would be the first step in the decision-making process.
A public hearing on the statue proposed for 822 Woodland Valley Road will be held at the ZBA meeting on Wednesday, October 16, at 7 p.m., at the Shandaken town hall.