Does 35-foot guru statue comply with a local zoning law?

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.

There are 3 comments

  1. Arlene Leitner

    Thanks for the article, and bringing this crucial problem to your readers. I am pleading for an end to this insanity. Building this monument, just off of Woodland Valley Rd. would end my 40 years of serenity and quiet respite from the busy city. Woodland Valley Road is a narrow one and barely handles the present traffic. Please don’t let this fiasco happen to this 81 year old who appreciates the natural beauty of this area.

  2. Thomas Colatrella

    The Religious Land Use Institutionalized Persons Act S.2856 also known as RLUIPA supersedes Town Zoning or Condo Rules Etc. as does “The Establishment Clause” the first clause of our First Amendment! This Law signed by William Jefferson Clinton passed by The United States Senate 98-0 gives religious groups the right to do almost anything “Legal” on their own land! I’m so sick of having to teach basic civics to those who gain or seek elected office! Remember all religions are equal under our First Amendment and as a Philosophy and Religion major with a long interest in Astro-Physics and Metaphysics I can say all equally false, primitive tribal cult mythology! I’m no atheist but our concept of that Consciousness we call “God” is still as primitive as it was thousands of years ago, before anyone knew there were Trillions and Trillions of Galaxies beyond even those Billions and Billions of Galaxies Carl Sagan spoke of or the revelations of the Higgs Field and Higgs Boson!

    1. Eilene Justice

      It’s not a religion or religious. Sanjay Rawal has said so himself in a letter to the Woodland Valley association.

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