The fate of a self-made millionaire’s dream of creating an academic hub, or ashram, in Voorhees for scholars and scientists to study solutions to religious conflict was being debated late Thursday before the township’s zoning board.
Paritosh Chakrabarti of Moorestown, who owns the multimillion-dollar chemical company PMC Group Inc. in Mount Laurel, wants to build such a center and others across the globe — but more than a hundred township residents are challenging him.
The scholars would stay at the facility free during five-year residencies that would give them access to a public library, living spaces, and communal areas for interaction and discussion.
But many residents of the 55-and-older community next door to the proposed site, Centennial Mill, are opposed to the project, which they say would increase noise and traffic. They also voiced concern about extremist attacks toward religious institutions during March’s Zoning Board meeting.
Those worries, along with testimonies from attorneys, were aired Thursday night before the board, which would have to approve Chakrabarti’s plans.
The ashram would be built on seven acres of undeveloped land on Centennial Boulevard near Matlack Drive. The site is zoned for economic industrial business, so a zoning variance would be required.
Creigh Rahenkamp, attorney for Centennial Mill, argued that the ashram does not constitute an “inherent benefit” to the township, which is one of the arguments used by Chakrabarti’s attorneys to justify a variance. Rahenkamp pointed to Office One and Office Four zoning districts as possible locations.
Chakrabarti’s attorney, Donald Cofsky, challenged that arguments by asking, “A think tank like this, which is dedicated to researching, writing, and disseminating information to heal the divide in our society, to going out into the community to discuss it and foster it — is that not a beneficial product to Voorhees?”
Cofsky also said that the ashram is meant to be a 55-and-older community, similar to Centennial Mill, and that the two groups share similarities.
“I’d actually like to see some type of accommodation between the two parties,” said Charles Frost, a resident of Centennial Mill. “I think there’s more to be gained by being hospitable than there is to be confrontational.”
Marlene Kaplan, a Centennial Mill resident who is opposed to the plan, said, “My concern is that you’re bringing in people from all over the world. There’s different languages, different cultures, and how would they be able to consult with Voorhees police about Voorhees issues without knowing our culture?”
If a variance is granted, Chakrabarti must seek formal site plan approval from the zoning board, as well as construction permits. And along the way, township officials say, there will be plenty more opportunity for public input.
“Voorhees has a very open process to make sure that all residents, interested parties, and the applicant are heard,” said Stuart Platt, attorney for the nine-member board. "Everybody has a chance to put in as much evidence as they possibly can, so we have a complete record and the board can make the most informed decision.” Those decisions, of course, are subject to appeal.