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Concerns linger over planned Mormon chapel

By Brock Parker
Globe Correspondent / February 25, 2010

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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hopes to begin building a new house of worship in Brookline as soon as this summer to ease the strain of growing membership at the area’s Mormon meetinghouses.

But some neighbors say the chapel, designed for two congregations, would overwhelm the 1.25-acre lot along Route 9 near Brookline Reservoir Park.

“It’s like me trying to get into a men’s small shirt,’’ said Gerry Oster, who lives next door in the Fisher Hill Estates. “It basically looks like a meetinghouse on steroids on that parcel.’’

The church will need a special permit from Brookline’s Zoning Board of Appeals, in part because the meetinghouse proposed for 603 Boylston St. is larger than local zoning laws allow. The building would be 33 feet tall with a 72-foot steeple, and would have underground parking for 155 vehicles and an entrance off Route 9.

The proposal will be reviewed by the Planning Board today and is scheduled to be taken up by the zoning panel on March 25.

Polly Selkoe, the town’s assistant director of planning regulations, said that if the plan is approved, it would be the first new church she can recall being built in Brookline during her 20-plus years on the job.

The meetinghouse is needed to alleviate crowding at most area Mormon chapels, said Julie Berry, a spokeswoman for the church’s Boston stake, which is akin to a diocese. Every Sunday, services for up to three congregations are held in each of the Boston stake’s chapels, she said.

Space has also been an issue for the Cambridge stake since a fire destroyed the Longfellow Park chapel in East Cambridge last May. That chapel is being rebuilt, and in June a dedication celebration will cap construction of a Cambridge stake center in Kendall Square that will house four congregations.

After years of moderate and steady growth, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has 28,000 members in New England, Berry said.

“Getting the Brookline chapel built will help with our facility needs,’’ Berry said. “It will create some breathing room for all of the nearby meetinghouses.’’

But Brookline is not the first town where the church has encountered neighborhood opposition to its building plans. In Belmont, some residents sued the church over a proposal to build a 139-foot steeple for a Mormon temple. The steeple was erected in 2001.

Neighbors of the proposed chapel in Brookline began voicing their concerns soon after the church purchased the property for $3.6 million in 2007 and announced it wanted to tear down a 14-room Colonial house on the site to make room for a meetinghouse. The church had to wait 18 months to tear down the house because of local demolition rules. But the waiting period expired late last year, and Berry said the house will be torn down in coming weeks.

Since 2007, Berry said, the church has worked to accommodate neighbors by redesigning the meetinghouse to remove all driveways to the chapel from Catlin Road and instead have a single driveway at Route 9.

The church also scaled back the size of the meetinghouse and made a commitment to neighbors to move parking underground. The chapel in the meetinghouse will have seating for 272 people, including four wheelchair spaces, but attendance is typically about 150 people per congregation, Berry said.

“We’ve kept the size of the building as modest as we could,’’ Berry said.

By including the parking structure, Berry said the church has created a design that exceeds the floor-area ratio allowed by Brookline zoning laws. Despite the need for a special permit, she said, the church will not go back on its commitment to underground parking.

Evelyn Moreno, who lives on Catlin Road, said the church has been “extremely accommodating’’ with some of its redesigns, and she said she would be very happy to have a chapel in the neighborhood if it were not so big.

“I think from my perspective it’s a very large building for a very small lot,’’ Moreno said.

Oster said he is also concerned about the traffic that two congregations will create turning into the chapel from Route 9 and where the chapel will keep its trash.

“The devil is in the details, as they say,’’ he said.

Oster said that while members have the right to worship where they want, he hopes the town will make the church decrease the size of the proposed chapel.

If the project is approved, Berry said, the church hopes to begin building this year, ideally as soon as this summer.

“We certainly are eager to get this thing going,’’ she said.