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In Mitt Romney's Neighborhood, A Mormon Temple Casts a Shadow

Thus it was Bennett who was charged with helping the president of the Mormon Church, Gordon B. Hinckley, look over the property in Belmont in 1995. For some time Hinckley had yearned to build a temple in the Northeast, with his focus on Hartford, Conn. But when informed that the church owned 8.9 acres close to Boston, he called Bennett asking to see the site.

By the time of his visit, prominent members of the Mormon faith had become established in Belmont. In addition to Romney, there was Kim Clark, dean of the faculty at Harvard Business School from 1995 to 2005, and now president of Brigham Young University's campus in Rexburg, Idaho. There was his HBS colleague Kent Bowen, a noted research scholar. And there was Romney's longtime friend John M. Wright, president of a boutique investment-banking firm dealing with mergers and acquisitions.

Hinckley wouldn't tell the world of his intentions until the following September. In its original conception, the building was to be 94,000 square feet with six spires reaching high into the New England sky. The central spire would be 144 feet high and topped by the angel Moroni, the figure said to have come to young Joseph Smith in 1823 and supposedly one of the authors of the Book of Mormon.

Even Bennett, in retrospect, says, "It was a very large building on that site. It was 94,000 feet on top of a hill in a residential area and it was very, very prominent."

Too prominent, it turned out, for those who were to live alongside it.

For months leading up to the local Zoning Board of Appeals decision in late 1996, Belmont High was the site of tightly packed, emotionally charged meetings where people argued about the temple. For many opponents, the issue wasn't religious freedom, but the town's own ordinances, which set a height limit of 72 feet. Despite protests, the zoning board voted 4 to 1 to approve the original proposal for the temple. Then, it unanimously approved scaled-back plans introduced in early 1997 that slashed the size of the building to 72,000 square feet and reduced the number of steeples to one.

This did not end the tumult. On the first day of blasting, something went terribly wrong, sending rock and debris and dust all over the neighborhood. Another time, an underground explosion caused a rubber mat to overheat, sending flames 20 feet into the air. Neighbors consistently complained about noise from the construction site.

Romney's public role in the debate over the temple was limited. In the spring of 1996, Romney and his wife, Ann, hosted a series of get-togethers with neighbors where both the architect and landscape architect answered questions. In 1999 he temporarily moved to Utah to organize the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. But even when in Belmont, he barely spoke publicly on the issue, Christensen says.

"We had a steering committee and he would attend the meetings," Christensen says. "At one meeting he said his very participation might be a lightning rod for additional controversy since he had run against Ted Kennedy. He was there and would give us advice but did not take a public role."

Two lawsuits were filed against the project. The first, in state court, challenged the variance that allowed the steeple to be built. This was followed by a suit in federal court challenging the right to build the structure itself. It claimed that the Massachusetts law allowing religious and educational institutions immunity from local zoning restrictions violated the U.S. Constitution. Those suing said the Massachusetts law in essence favored the spreading of religion. Both cases were decided in favor of the Mormons. The temple opened without a steeple, but the structure, rising 139 feet, was added after the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled in the Mormons' favor in 2001.

"It's hard to know how much of it was bigotry and how much of it was wanting to try and keep the tranquility of Belmont neighborhoods," says the banker Wright, after watching Romney's Texas speech on the Internet from his office. "I suppose it was a little of both."

Critics of the project still bristle at such comments.

Charles Counselman, a former professor in MIT's planetary sciences department, bought his home in 1997 and later became one of the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit.

"I was attacked many times in many forums for being a religious bigot or worse," Counselman says. "I don't have anything against the LDS church. The LDS church has had a meetinghouse in this neighborhood for a long time. When I was in college I had two Mormon roommates. I contributed to Mitt Romney's Senate campaign. It's not about that at all. In my mind it's a zoning issue."

When the building was finished (except for the steeple) in 2000, thousands came to tour the site. Among the visitors was Kennedy, who was guided around by Romney, his onetime political opponent. Kennedy called the structure "magnificent," adding he wished that Romney were a Democrat.


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