Resident unsure of plans after application denied

Bucks County Courier Times/February 20, 2009

A. Rhodes Wilson said he isn't sure what he'll do now that Plumstead has denied his application to convert an Easton Road home he owns into the Church of Scientology Mission of Bucks County.

"I haven't formalized my plans," said Wilson, a day after supervisors unanimously rejected his bid to turn the five-bedroom, ranch-style house into a mission center.

He had no comment about the board's denial, which is expected to be formally adopted at its March 3 meeting.

After meeting in executive session to discuss the matter earlier this week, Supervisor Stacey Mulholand said only that the application failed to meet zoning requirements.

For the past several months, Wilson, represented by Doylestown attorney Robert Gundlach, has pursued an application that would have allowed the house to be used as a place of worship, which the zoning permits as a conditional use.

During many hours of testimony, Plumstead officials listened to arguments that the house-turned-mission would conform to township ordinances and not result in changes to the 2 1/2-acre property that fronts Route 611 (Easton Road).

A number of neighbors questioned the legitimacy of the mission as a "place of worship," and the impact it would have on the primarily residential district. Some suggested the mission, of which Wilson is the director, would be more of a business.

Wilson testified that mission members would pay for counseling and educational services, as well as pay rent.

As the board pressed for water, sewer and traffic studies, which Wilson had done, Gundlach said the township was treating his client unfairly and cautioned officials they were infringing on Wilson's religious freedom.

Citing a federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, Gundlach said the municipality is prohibited from using a regulation that "imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person including a religious assembly or institution."

But in the end, the board refused the use, saying its engineer, Tim Fulmer, had found the plan lacking. In a letter to the township's attorney, Fulmer said the proposal "does not comply with minimum building setback and requirements, buffer yard requirements, lot area requirements, and parking design requirements."

Gundlach maintained the requirements were based on incorrect definitions pertaining to Wilson's lot.

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