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Churches as Neighbors

October 20, 2002

It would be a shame if houses of worship gained a reputation as undesirable neighbors. Unfortunately, that's the way it's been headed in some corners of Orange County.

At one time, churches were busy only once a week for services. Now, as they expand their range to include social clubs, youth groups and continuing education, the traffic flows all days, at nearly all times. Several neighborhoods have fought off church proposals to install cell phone towers in their steeples.

Homeowners in an expensive new section of Newport Beach are fighting plans for a Mormon temple, complaining about the towering steeple and dramatic evening lighting. Unfortunately, church officials initially fed local opposition by asserting that the temple's design had been decreed by God, as interpreted by a church prophet, and was nonnegotiable. Then, on a more conciliatory note, they offered to lower the steeple from 124 feet to 100 and changed the design to California Mission style.

But this offer gained them only mistrust, as residents took it as evidence that church designs are indeed changeable. Neighbors also worry about the bright lights meant to bathe the steeple in a heavenly glow until 10 each evening, a natural concern for any parent who has to get the kids to bed by 8:30.

The land where the temple would be built is zoned for houses of worship, so home buyers should have been forewarned. But a Mormon temple isn't your ordinary neighborhood church. It is meant almost by definition to be an imposing and visually dominant building that evokes heaven-inspired awe in viewers.

The Mormon temple in San Diego is such a building, both eye-catching and ethereal. It also rises alongside a freeway in an office district, where it fits within its landscape and few are around at night to be bothered by lights.

None of this helps the unhappy situation in Newport Beach, where the temple would be far smaller than San Diego's. Even though the church has made significant design concessions, down to changing the color from the usual gleaming white to more of an earth tone, neighbors are still spitting mad and ready to fight.

Heaven only knows whether it would have made a difference had the church worked with neighbors from the start instead of saying its concerns are bigger than theirs.

Religious organizations are guaranteed great latitude in building designs as part of their freedom of religion. That doesn't mean neighbors, especially the affluent and power-familiar residents of Newport Beach, can't make life difficult in City Hall and in the courts. It's worthwhile for religious leaders and householders to remember humbly that a little voluntary neighborliness goes a long way.

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