The approval process for the 162-acre mandir complex in Robbinsville, which began a decade ago, stands as a model of effective negotiation.
On one side was BAPS: well prepared, creative and the epitome of neighborliness. On the other, the Robbinsville planning board and greater community, which acted out its commitment to welcoming diversity.
This was not your typical planning board application. The Shikhardbaddh mandir, a traditional structure built to thousands-year-old specifications from an ancient Hindu religious text, is constructed entirely of hand-carved stone and held together by ball and socket joints.
“The Mahamandir was something no one could completely grasp. After all most people have never seen anything like it,” wrote Hari Patel, project administrator for BAPS, in an email approved by key players in the project.
“Therefore, to ensure some level of confidence, the organization took time in educating both township staff and consultants in a detailed manner of the religious requirements, typical materials used and the manner in which construction occurs,” Patel continued.
Building a mandir is a large and complex project that had “large pieces that could be transformative,” says Thomas Halm, the founding partner of Halm Law Group, who represented BAPS during the Robbinsville approval process while a partner at Hill Wallack. Halm, a Robbinsville resident, now serves on the Robbinsville Board of Education.
When BAPS was looking to build a Mahamandir to serve Central Jersey, Robbinsville—although not its first choice—turned out to be a match made in heaven. Having looked previously at East Windsor, Halm recalls that BAPS “had found some difficulty of the community not being supportive of the project,” although “they had gotten pretty far before they backed out.”
But even in other communities where their applications were unsuccessful, Patel said, “it was never a case of prejudice or any type of discrimination,” which he attributes to New Jersey’s diversity.
“It is difficult to accept change when that change cannot be perceived,” he wrote. “This ultimately caused other townships to ultimately decline the organization’s desire to work with them.”
Specifically, BAPS was in search for a suitable piece of land that would be easily accessible to congregants and large enough to build the facility as required by religious doctrine. The Robbinsville tract seemed ideal, accessible to both the New York and Philadelphia metropolitan areas and also close to both Route 130 and the New Jersey Turnpike. It also was accessible to Hindus in Central Jersey who were too far from the existing mandirs in Edison and Cherry Hill.
The property in Robbinsville, Halm said, was also “back off the road and not easily visible, surrounded by trees.”
Having found what seemed like the ideal space for their extensive project, and having been turned down previously, Halm says, “They were concerned from day one whether Robbinsville was going to be receptive to a project like this.”
But Robbinsville officials, Patel said, were open to change and any opportunity they felt would enhance the landscape.
Because Robbinsville was willing to take this leap of faith, BAPS was determined to dispel any concerns about what would be built, and to be as transparent as possible throughout the process, including talking to residents in different events including in the Community Day, National Night Out and summer concerts.
In preparation for the first planning board meeting, BAPS hired an expert on Hindu culture who gave hours of testimony on what Hindus believe and what this branch of Hinduism believes, so that the planning board could understand what the effect of the new mandir would be.
“When people understand a religion,” Halm says, “it takes away some concern for the ‘outsider.’
“The folks in Robbinsville were amazing to deal with. They were always welcoming, wanting to make sure they knew what the project was about and what the effects would be.”
Although the town didn’t offer any favors, Halm continues, “they wanted to make sure we [BAPS] understood they [the town] wouldn’t be an impediment as long as we were doing the right things by the town [regarding] land use.”
But, as a new and unknown group coming into Robbinsville, BAPS did receive some resistance. Residents came out during the hearings to voice their potential concerns of having someone potentially disturb the historical nature of the village of Windsor, which borders the land in question is located.
“There was no overt racism, and there was not any disguised racism,” Halm says. “The people who came out had legitimate concerns.”
BAPS put these community concerns front and center in their preparations. Following the teachings of their guru, or spiritual leader, BAPS was under a religious obligation “to work with others and try to build relationships.” To this end, right around the time BAPS came to Robbinsville, the township was in the midst of celebrating its 150-year anniversary, and BAPS was able to provide assistance which “began to forge a lasting relationship between [the town] and the organization,” Patel wrote.
For the potential obstacle of the location of the property, Halm had inside knowledge as a former member of both Robbinsville’s planning and school boards.
“I knew how sensitive folks in Windsor are to any changes that might aversely affect their historic design,” Halm said.
One example of BAPS’s creative response to community concerns during the approval process relates to Windsor’s “historic view shed,” which Halm remembers from his time on the planning board as “what makes Windsor special.”
“When you come over the hill from West Windsor, you are looking at what the town looked like 200 years ago, with farms and fields, and here we were proposing to build a large Hindu temple that might be visible from that space.”
When Halm explained this to the BAPS community, their response was, “We don’t want to do something that would create anxiety for them.”
And they proposed an out-of-the-box idea as to how they would ensure that the view shed remained unobstructed—they used a bright red blimp, the size of a Cadillac, as a stand-in for the future building.
“They drove it into the middle of the field where the highest buildings would be and floated the blimp to that height, then they photographed every single angle from every single surrounding field…from out on 130 to West Windsor, both sides of the road,” Halm said. “Wherever they could see the blimp, they modified their plans so that the building would be invisible to the surrounding area.”
Another critical concern was traffic during weekly services and at major events, especially that “the Hindu community from West Windsor would use Church Street [in Windsor] as a means for getting to the mandir. The concern was quality of life,” Halm says.
The BAPS team took the issue quite seriously and ensured that traffic would not become an issue by reconstructing a portion of Route 130 at Voelbel Road and putting in a light. Halm says, “That road was a disaster, and they spent millions in reconstructing and putting together that road so it works better than it used to work.”
‘Robbinsville found a good partner in BAPS. BAPS found good partner in somebody who was not afraid of something that was different.’
Regarding traffic concerns, Mary Caffrey, who was then the business administrator of Robbinsville and also a class 2 planning board member representing the administration, says that during the approval process BAPS explained how they would handle a major celebration that would bring a large number of people into the facility. They agreed to create a transportation plan and have police on site. Early on they had cars parking at warehouse lots and used shuttle buses to bring them to the site. More recently, they have a temporary parking facility on the grass, and police officers directed traffic. Current construction, Caffrey says, involves making the temporary parking permanent, creating a storage area away from the main buildings, and building a visitor center.
Robbinsville Mayor Dave Fried is impressed with the results.
“Their [traffic] plan was truly unique,” Fried said. “To this day, even though they move quite a number of people to the facility throughout the weekend, most of my residents don’t know anyone was there.”
Speaking to BAPS’s ongoing contributions to the community, Halm says, “They are really about trying to make the community a better place. They knew their project was going to have an impact, and they talked from the beginning about how that impact wouldn’t be felt and improving the town and not being a burden to the town, and I think that is what is being experienced now.”
Fried also lauds BAPS’s corporate citizenship. “They have taken a leadership role in terms of giving back to the community,” he says. When, after a fire in Ewing, the Red Cross called Robbinsville to request a blood drive, BAPS’s response was immediate. Within an hour of calling BAPS, things were in motion, and, Fried says, “By 6 that night we had to tell people to stop coming.”
During Hurricane Sandy, BAPS opened the mandir to people who needed housing, food and shower facilities.
“A number of people were displaced at a mobile home park, and they took in those residents and pets and cooked for them,” Fried said.
They also took in about 100 truckers who had brought fuel from Louisiana to fill fuel cells, cubes, and power generators being used for hospitals, nursing homes, and water treatment facilities in the hurricane’s aftermath; before BAPS’s welcome they had been sleeping in their cars.
“The county donated cots, and they created a spot for the truckers to sleep and shower,” Fried says.
BAPS has also donated to many local causes, conducting health fairs, blood and marrow donation drives, walkathons, and food and toy drives.
“It was the organization’s way to integrate itself with the town,” Patel wrote.
BAPS has also worked with the Robbinsville Pantry, Robbinsville Education Foundation, and emergency services including police, fire, and ambulatory and the Central Jersey Sikh Association.
“I’m hard pressed to think of a major community event that I go to and don’t see the BAPS community there and participating,” Caffrey said. She also cites their contribution to the robotics program at the high school.
The initial planning board process continued for at least a year and a half. And after all the evidence was heard and documentation submitted, Halm says, “It was pretty clear what did or didn’t need to be done. If it had shown it would affect Windsor, they would have adjusted the location, but they didn’t need to.” He adds that both an architect and an engineer helped them place the building.
The BAPS project also solved a significant problem the town faced. Their purchase of the land precluded a developer stepping in.
“If it turned into housing, it would have overwhelmed our school district,” Halm says, noting that “the schools are already overcrowded.” The town had already been trying to figure out a way to preserve the property.
“What we have seen as residents are all beneficial. The roadway was never a problem; even when they had a large-scale opening, the roads flowed. They have worked with the town and the town with them, it is a win-win with them,” Halm says.
Fried describes the approval process as “probably one of the most thorough” that he had ever been through.
“They were so well prepared and well planned; they thought of everything,” he said.
Caffrey, who recently testified on BAPS’s behalf because the organization’s doing a big expansion, entirely agrees, “When we reviewed the application, one of the things that struck both the staff and later on the board—the consensus that this was probably the most well-done application, the most complete in addressing concerns that any of us had ever seen. I couldn’t understand why another community had turned them away. I feel the other town’s loss has been Robbinsville’s gain.”
Halm’s specialty is creditors’ rights, with a subspecialty of land use. But the reason he got involved in the BAPS negotiations is because he is a Robbinsville resident and was asked to get involved.
“I understand the community and what the community was looking for,” he says.
Describing the massive building project, Fried says, “It is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. It is incredible the scope of work they are doing with volunteers.” The construction site, he adds, “looks like it is Disneyland. You won’t believe how well landscaped, managed, and clean it is.”
Fried recommends that anyone who hasn’t been there should go. “The architecture and the carving and the artwork is truly incredible. They shipped marble and limestone from Italy to India, where it was hand carved and shipped back to the U.S., where it was fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle.”
And yet, despite its immensity, and the continued building, Caffrey says, “I drive past the facility every day on my way to work, and you would never know it was there. There was one little sign.”
“You have to really drive off the road and drive back to see it,” Caffrey says. “And then it’s, ‘Wow.’ The mandir is just breathtaking—no photo or plan can really do justice to it. And it’s not just that. It is the experience that is so welcoming.” And she adds that part of the second phase is creating more of a welcome center for people who are not Hindu.
“They want to be able to do more to educate visitors about their faith and be more welcoming to people from other faiths,” she says.
Noting that in 2016 BAPS was grand marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade sponsored by the Robbinsville Irish Heritage Association, Fried says, “Only in Robbinsville can that happen. It shows just how integrated and diverse our community has been and how well people are working and living together, which I think is one of the truly great things about our town.”
Dave Doran, vice president of the parade, agrees that “recognizing a Hindu temple as grand marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day parade can be considered a little extraordinary.” But in line with his association’s commitment to celebrating all heritages, Doran says, “the reason we chose BAPS is because they have a significant impact on the culture and lifestyle of our community.” Noting their support for the community during Hurricane Sandy, he says, “They embraced service to others, which is a tenet important to us as members of the Robbinsville Irish Heritage Association.”
“Robbinsville found a good partner in BAPS because they were anxious to do something interesting and be a good neighbor,” Halm said. “BAPS found good partner in somebody who was not afraid of something that was different.”