Lighted Cross Runs Afoul Of Act 250 Commission

12/23/09 5:50PM By Charlotte Albright
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Photo/Herb Swanson

(Host) High on a hill in the Northeast Kingdom, near a stunning stone chapel with sweeping views, there's a 24-foot cross.

This time last year, it was illuminated.  This year, though, it's nearly invisible after sundown.

That's because the chapel's owners, devout Catholics, have run afoul of Vermont's Act 250 commission, which considers the cross "out of character" with its rural residential neighborhood.

VPR's Charlotte Albright reports.

(Albright) The Chapel of the Holy Family rises majestically from a knoll on the edge of woods and gardens, surrounded by statues of the Virgin Mary.

Although it's only two years old, it looks stark and ancient. Richard and Joan Downing, who live most of the year in Massachusetts, built it as, the Web site puts it  "a place  of renewal, rest, and refuge," and it's usually open to the public.

The Downings want to illuminate the towering 24-foot cross at one end of the building for about 13 weeks every year, to mark especially sacred days on the Christian calendar. 

Their attorney, Brook Dingledine, says the cross is not just seasonal decoration.

(Dingledine) "And this cross, they feel, is part and parcel of this project and of this chapel and they feel very blessed to have been able to have the opportunity to construct this cross and feel very strongly that they would like to have it lit during limited times during the year but this is very important to them and to their own exercise of their personal religion."

(Albright) But some neighbors see the huge lighted cross as an unwelcome intrusion in the night sky. First, they asked the Lyndonville Zoning Board to rule against it. The result, as Zoning Administrator Justin Smith explains, was a compromise.

(Smith) "Something of that type of size, lit all the times, located in a rural residential district with a lot of single family houses lit all the time or for that percentage of the year, would be out of character with the area. So the board compromised it down to allow them to light it during the Christmas season, not unlike you would have with a single family home putting up their own Christmas lights or whatever on their residence."

(Albright) But the Downings weren't satisfied, because they want to light the cross during other seasons, like Easter.

So they have appealed the zoning ruling, which is still pending before Environmental Court. But then, this past October, they faced another, bigger obstacle.

The Land Use Panel of the Natural Resources Board ruled that the cross violates Act 250, and they have ordered the Downings to remove the cross or make it much smaller and dimmer.

Melanie Kehne is the panel's staff attorney.

(Kehne) "If it's just something that's just so out of scale and so out of whack with its surroundings-I think the term is shocking and offensive, then that's a problem under criterion eight. And if you fail to mitigate in ways that you could reasonably mitigate then you're not going to pass under criterion eight."

(Albright) But the Downings say that in this case, to mitigate-to reduce the size of the cross-would defeat its religious purpose and significance.

According to the Chapel's Web site, the building and its cross was, quote "a promise kept to Our Lady by whose intercession the owner's business flourished after it was consecrated." 

Attorney Dingledine says their right to display and light it is protected by the First Amendment:

(Dingledine) "The constitutional  right to exercise your religion and for the government not infringe on those rights is paramount here."

(Albright) The cross, she notes, is on private,  not public land, so the government is not promoting religion, it's interfering with it.  

But local and state regulators don't see it that way. Lyndonville zoning administrator Justin Smith says the town has dealt evenhandedly with chapels like this one, and for, say, a business that might want an oversized fluorescent sign.

The Environmental Court is expected to rule on the Downings' appeal in the next couple of months-too late for this Christmas but in time, they hope, for next season. 

If they lose again, their attorney says they are willing to take their case to the Supreme Court.

For VPR News, I'm Charlotte Albright, in Lyndonville. 

 

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