The prospect of living next door to a think tank for peace has many residents of the Centennial Mill retirement community up in arms.

Members of the homeowners association in the 55-and-over Voorhees neighborhood have signed petitions and hired a lawyer. They’re turning out in large numbers to fight the township zoning code variance sought for a $7 million ashram that has been described as a place for visiting senior scholars to live, study, and seek solutions to racial and religious conflict.

"Your plan was to promote peace and harmony,” Centennial Mill resident Frances Lettieri told businessman Paritosh M. Chakrabarti, who wants to build the ashram, during Thursday’s Voorhees zoning board meeting.

“Contrary to your mission, you have created discord and disharmony.”

The irony is painful: What would strike some people as a quiet, benevolent, even prestigious neighborhood amenity is being attacked as a threat to property values and public safety.

Folks in Centennial Mill are afraid that the center’s presence on what has long been a seven-acre vacant tract along Centennial Boulevard will disrupt life in the gated, well-kept, and civic-minded community they love. They say the center, however well-intentioned, would generate unwanted vehicular and pedestrian traffic and could become a target of extremist violence.

“There has been a substantial rise in hate crimes in this country, [such as] the Pittsburgh synagogue shootings and the Charleston church shootings,” Centennial Mill resident Allan Pepper said, testifying before the zoning board at a sometimes tense hearing. Testimony will resume April 11.

“The existence of an ashram directly adjacent to the Centennial Mill community will create a significant security and safety concern for residents,"said Pepper.

"The very purpose and mission of the ashram... is certain to inflame and incite members of hate groups.”

The ashram is the dream of Chakrabarti, a self-made millionaire who lives in Moorestown and owns PMC Group Inc., a global chemical company with headquarters in Mount Laurel. He said he has been looking since early 2017 for a site “in a park-like setting” and also near other communities.

Philosophers, scientists, and other scholars who are over 55 and have advanced degrees would apply for free, five-year residencies at the ashram, he said. Each would live in one of the 20 dwellings surrounding a welcome center that would have four guest rooms for visitors as well as a library that would be open to the public.

A rendering of the front of the proposed ashram adjacent to the Centennial Mill retirement community in Evesham. Rendering by Fumo & Associates, courtesy of Paritosh M. Chakrabarti.
Prov / FUMO & ASSOCIATES, iNC.
A rendering of the front of the proposed ashram adjacent to the Centennial Mill retirement community in Evesham. Rendering by Fumo & Associates, courtesy of Paritosh M. Chakrabarti.

Although the ashram would not have facilities for large events, it would host small conferences several times a year. Resident scholars would be expected to do research, write, and publish. And while scholars of any faith would be welcome to apply, the ashram “will not be a religious institution,” said Chakrabarti, 78.

He also said he already has modified parts of his plan in response to concerns from the prospective neighbors. He’ll erect a 6-foot fence along the rear of the property, and eliminate vehicular access from the ashram to Matlack Drive, a major Centennial Mill thoroughfare.

“I am planning to do similar centers all over the world, and this is the first," Chakrabarti told me before the meeting,

More than 100 people packed the chamber at Voorhees Town Hall for 90 minutes of testimony, much of it polite, some of it heated. Only four of the 17 people who spoke were for the project. And when board attorney Stuart Platt asked for a show of hands by those opposed, and next, by those in favor, of the zoning variance, the contrasting views of whites and nonwhites in the room were dramatically evident.

As for questions about whether some of the scholars or visitors to the ashram might be disreputable or even dangerous, Rakesh Gupta, a trustee of Virtua Hospital in Voorhees, said: “There are unfounded fears ... that these people are going to be criminals trespassing on [Centennial Mill] properties. They will be learned, educated, law-abiding people. They are [not going to] trespass and use your pool.”

Paritosh M. Chakrabarti (first row, center) and his wife, Srimati (first row, left), during a Voorhees, NJ zoning board hearing March 14 at which members of the audience opposed to the couple's ashram project were asked to raise their hands. The Chakrabartis and a much smaller number of other people raised their hands when the board asked those in favor to respond as well.
Kevin Riordan
Paritosh M. Chakrabarti (first row, center) and his wife, Srimati (first row, left), during a Voorhees, NJ zoning board hearing March 14 at which members of the audience opposed to the couple's ashram project were asked to raise their hands. The Chakrabartis and a much smaller number of other people raised their hands when the board asked those in favor to respond as well.

Another speaker, Sangeeta Rashatwar, a Cherry Hill businesswoman who lives in Voorhees, wondered whether people feel “that because of the color of my skin, I’m not American."

Testifying not long afterward, Ray Gunther, president of the homeowners association, said: “There’s no prejudice in this room. I can guarantee that.”

And speaking to me earlier in the day, Gunther — a good guy who’s recovering from a recent stroke — said he and his neighbors “have nothing against the Indian community. We have Indians who live here, a lot of Asians, and Jewish people too. Nobody would ever say anything negative about any ethnic group.”

And speaking to me earlier in the day, Gunther — a good guy who’s recovering from a recent stroke — said he and his neighbors “have nothing against the Indian community. We have Indians who live here, a lot of Asians, and Jewish people too. Nobody would ever say anything negative about any ethnic group.”

Chakrabarti’s cause strikes me as genuine, and having his ashram as a neighbor would be just fine with me. I don’t believe building an institution dedicated to resolving human conflict would damage Centennial Mill.

The saddest part of this whole sad business is that the damage has already been done. To all of us.

Ray Gunther, president of the homeowners association at Centennial Mill, sits near the indoor pool and clubhouse at the active senior community in Voorhees. He and other residents worry that a proposed ashram with global peace as its mission will disrupt life in their close-knit neighborhood.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Ray Gunther, president of the homeowners association at Centennial Mill, sits near the indoor pool and clubhouse at the active senior community in Voorhees. He and other residents worry that a proposed ashram with global peace as its mission will disrupt life in their close-knit neighborhood.