HOPKINTON – A neighbor of the Ananda Church of Self-Realization and Retreat Center charges that the religious organization has violated the zoning for its 40-acre compound on rural Tomaquag Road.
But the church claims neighbor Richard Coppa is mixing his zoning complaints with half-truths about the organization and religious bigotry.
The church received a permit from Building and Zoning Official Charles Mauti on Feb. 27 to build a house on its Tomaquag Road site, zoned for residential use.
But according to Coppa, of 279 Tomaquag Road, the construction violates the terms of a special-use permit – awarded to the church in 2002 to operate the retreat center – that it “… apply to the appropriate board if they plan on… any building expansion.”
Coppa recently circulated a flier to residents on Tomaquag Road that says the Ananda religion is a “cult.” And the church’s “religious leader (J. Donald Walters) is a fugitive from justice stemming from a previous conviction of ‘sexual abuse’ and ‘constructive fraud’ resulting from the church’s brainwashing of their followers.”
In response to Coppa’s flier, the church sent a letter to neighbors which argues that Coppa uses the word “cult” as a tabloid label to mask “religious intolerance.” Further, the response asserts that Walters, 78, whose religious name is Swami Kriyananda, has no convictions for sexual abuse.
Yet the Ananda Awareness Network, a watchdog group of estranged members, claimed last month that Italian authorities sought Walters for five criminal charges, including fraud, usury and slavery in connection with his involvement with an Ananda church police raided in Asissi, Italy.
The local Ananda church’s letter says that Walters, who left Italy for India in January, reported to the Italian consulate in Delhi to answer the charges. “The Italian judge saw through the ridiculousness of the charges and no longer requires (Walters’) presence in Italy,” the local representatives wrote.
It is unclear if Walters was absolved of the alleged crimes.
Meanwhile, Hopkinton’s Zoning Board considered Coppa’s zoning complaints during a meeting April 15, when it was decided that Mauti would conduct a site inspection of the church within the next two weeks.
Mauti has frozen the building permit he granted the church in February. “I may have erred,” he said during the board meeting, regarding his issuing the permit.
Coppa also complains that a yurt (a portable tent where the church conducts Sunday services) and outdoor lighting located on the church’s property also constitute zoning violations.
“The (zoning) issues that Mr. Coppa has brought forward are valid,” Mauti said.
The board decided to revisit the issue at a meeting May 20, when the church’s attorney Vincent Naccarato plans to ask the board to grant the building permit.
Ananda Church President Larry Rider, a longtime town resident, sought the building permit to build a house for himself and his wife. Their current home on the property also serves as an office for the retreat center, which offers weekend stays in a separate four-bedroom boarding house for a fee.
The church’s faith stems from the practices of Paramhansa Yogananda, a yoga master who brought his teaching to the United States in the 1920s. Walters met Yogananda in 1948 and founded the first Ananda ministry in Nevada City, Calif., in 1968.
Walters has gained a following of about 2,500 people and Ananda churches and retreats have spread throughout the country and abroad.