The Shandaken Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) voted unanimously to uphold zoning enforcement officer Howie McGowan’s decision to reject resident Sanjay Rawal’s application to erect a 35-foot statue of deceased spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy on his property in Woodland Valley. The decision came after a public hearing on October 16, in which numerous valley residents argued forcefully against the statue, and Rawal and his lawyer defended the project.
The statue was proposed for a property in the R5 residential zone, which does not allow galleries or museums. While Rawal has claimed the statue will be for private use only, valley resident Hank Williams has reviewed Rawal’s 2017 income tax return, which reports the purchase of the statue as a work of art intended for “public exhibition,” thus clearly not permitted in the R5 zone.
Hilary Leitner said Rawal had claimed in the past that a plan to erect his statue in Iceland had failed because of the excessive cost to buy property. She produced a newspaper clipping stating that the statue had been rejected because so many people didn’t want it. Officials “didn’t think it would create peace in the area.”
David Congdon said he believed the statue would be visible from roads and trails when leaves were off the trees. He asked the ZBA to preserve “our unspoiled mountainsides.”
Willow resident Ann Carlton, who spent 20 years as a member of the Sri Chinmoy community, which she called a cult, described manipulative and threatening behavior on the part of the guru. “He is a hideous person, the statue is grotesque, and it’s a monument to a person who was self-absorbed and sociopathic,” she said. She felt the nature of the area would be “defiled” by a statue whose presence may be broadcast over the Internet, changing the nature of Shandaken by attracting multitudes of disciples.
Rawal claims that only the three people belonging to the foundation that owns the property will have access to the statue. Gary Falk, also a former devotee, said that the Sri Chinmoy organization contains thousands who may travel to see a monument to their revered leader.
Gail Margulis, who lives in the Queens neighborhood deluged each summer by devotees, was also critica. “They hold huge races, 3200-mile races,” she said. “They sing to get started. They think it’s bringing peace, but it’s not. Woodland Valley has a two-lane road and gorgeous mountains. There’s no way these people won’t come to it. I don’t know how we’re going to prevent it.”
“It’s all speculation,” Rawal’s attorney, Ron Pordy, protested. “The statue will be impossible to see [from off the site]. We invite you to come up and do a balloon test. The statue will be in an out-of-the-way location. It doesn’t move or make sounds. There’s no illumination. The town has mechanisms for controlling what happens at the site. If he violates the conditions, you can shut him down.”
“How do you shut down a statue?” asked ZBA member Mark Loete.
“There’s traffic already in the valley from Airbnbs,” observed Rawal. “We are welcome to have conditions imposed. This is religiously themed art, it’s not a shrine.” He questioned the allegations of the guru’s cult-like control over devotees, pointing out, “He’s not alive.”
“If Mr. Rawal could absolutely guarantee us that the statue can’t be seen from anywhere in the Catskills off his property,” said Loete, “and he could guarantee there won’t be heavy traffic in the valley …”
“It’s not going to happen,” said ZBA member Joe Michaels.
After closing the public hearing, the board voted unanimously to support McGowan’s decision against the project.