Residents of a West Babylon neighborhood are up in arms over a proposed Jehovah's Witnesses hall, but the religious group said it simply wants a place to worship and is trying to be a good neighbor.
The 3,900-square-foot building would be built on a wooded spot on Forest Avenue. The 1-acre site is zoned residential, but churches are allowed, said Babylon town spokesman Tim Ruggeri. The town had approved the site for a four-house subdivision, he said, but no development took place.
Robert Hendriks, 46, a Jehovah's Witnesses minister and representative, said his group purchased the property more than a year ago. He said the hall will combine the Babylon and Lindenhurst congregations and serve 70 to 90 members. The original proposal called for 222-person capacity and 57 parking spots, but after hearing residents' concerns Hendriks met with town officials Friday and changed the plan to 168-person capacity and 55 spots.
Hendriks said his religion strives to keep congregations small and the hall would never be rented out or used for social events other than an occasional wedding. "It's just going to be a very quiet place for religious education," he said.
But residents worry the group will bring extra traffic to a residential street they said is already filled with speeding cars looking for a shortcut to Sunrise Highway.
"They are not wanted here," said Tracie Morea, 42, who lives across the street. "They should go somewhere on a main road."
The neighborhood is "not a sleepy community," Hendriks said. "It's a main road, and it will continue to be whether we're there or not." He said his group is considering doing a traffic study.
Diane Hyzdu, 33, who lives next to the site, said she worries about off-hours. "What happens when you have an empty parking lot? Trouble," she said. "It's inviting a little more mischief into the neighborhood."
Many residents said they do not have a religious prejudice against the group, but at a recent planning board meeting at least one resident called the group a "cult." Hendriks said he understands the reaction.
"There is an unknown coming into their community, and when that happens it generates fear and anger," he said.
Hendriks said there are about 80 congregations and 33 halls on Long Island, most in residential neighborhoods. He said it is "very, very rare" to have this kind of opposition, and his group is working with the town to mitigate concerns. "Our main goal is always being a good neighbor," he said.
The planning board, which must approve a site plan, is accepting information and comments until May 16.