DIGHTON — The founder of a Wiccan church said her coven will use land off Stanzione Drive for ceremonies whether the town lets them build on it or not.
“The church doesn’t have to build to use that land. We are witches. We work outdoors in nature,” said the Rev. Cheryl Sulyma-Masson, the founder of the Circle of Salgion Church of Wicca Inc., which is presently based in Rehoboth.
Witches prefer to do their magic circles and wedding ceremonies outdoors close to nature in a “spiritual place,” though they would like to have a building as a backup in case of inclement weather, she said.
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The land is owned by Dr. Richard Cohen, a veterinarian with a practice on Route 44 and a director of the church. He donated a portion of his 50-acre parcel to the church several years ago. His intention was to build his dream house with a small farm on his portion of the property, he said.
But he has insufficient frontage on Stanzione Drive and his frontage on Wheeler Street is wetlands. The Zoning Board of Appeals turned down his request for a variance to allow him to access the property through an existing driveway on Stanzione Drive. Cohen has about 47 feet of frontage on Stanzione Drive, but the town requires a minimum of 175 feet, ZBA Chairman Joseph Pacheco said.
Cohen has appealed the ZBA decision and has a court date set for January. The church returned the land to Cohen during the legal wrangle with the town, but he said he intends to give the Wiccans the entire parcel if he is not allowed to build his house.
The portion of the land he had given to the church has no frontage on Stanzione Drive and would also have to be accessed through Cohen’s driveway or by building a suspension bridge over the wetlands, said Sulyma-Masson, who is a veterinary technician.
“If they deny me a house, they won’t make any taxes because I’ll give it all to the church,” Cohen said.
Cohen and Sulyma-Masson said building a bridge would be prohibitively expensive, constituting a hardship which should be grounds for a variance. But the ZBA decision said Cohen created his own hardship by buying a property with insufficient frontage. He purchased the 50 acres for $100,000 five years ago, he said.
Sulyma-Masson said she fears the opposition is caused by prejudice against witches.
“They tell me no, but I have nothing to judge by. They have other churches in town. I have heard there are certain people who do not want witches in town,” she said.
She said she’s never had a problem in Rehoboth, which has been very welcoming of the Wiccans.
Cohen said he believes Dighton Selectmen Chairman Gene Nelson, whose house abuts his land, drummed up opposition to his proposal. He and Sulyma-Masson said Nelson told them “the traffic would disrupt their nice little quiet neighborhood.” Sulyma-Masson said she responded that Stanzione Drive is a public road and vehicles have a right to drive down it.
“He’s been trying to stop the church by stopping me,” Cohen said.
But Nelson said he deliberately avoided attending the ZBA hearings to avoid even the appearance of trying to influence the process. He is concerned about the traffic, as were many of his neighbors, but he did not encourage opposition. He didn’t have to. His neighbors were concerned on their own, he said.
Nelson agreed that Stanzione Drive is a public street, but that doesn’t mean Cohen has a right to build if he can’t meet zoning requirements, Nelson said. Nelson said Cohen probably got the land cheap because of the frontage problem — though Cohen said it was because back taxes were owed and the previous owners were fighting over the land.
“I’m not opposed to the church, and I resent that comment. I’ve spent 28 years of my life wearing the uniform of the U.S. Army to make sure people can go to any church they want. I’d be just as concerned if it were a Catholic Church, or a Protestant Church or a synagogue or a McDonalds. Anyone who lives on a dead-end street would not like to see traffic,” Nelson said.
“Just because I’m a selectman doesn’t mean I give up my rights under the zoning bylaws,” Nelson added.
Nelson said the case is exactly like one the town won in court over the issue of “illusory frontage.” The developers wanted to access their property through Chase Street while listing their frontage as wetlands on Tremont Street. The court upheld a Planning Board decision stating that access to the property must be through the frontage.
In the Cohen case, the ZBA ruling states there will be no “substantial hardship to the petitioner, financial or otherwise, if the variance is denied, as the petitioner is able to access the parcel from Wheeler Street without obtaining a variance.”
But Cohen said accessing the parcel through Wheeler Street is a huge financial hardship. His engineer estimated a suspension bridge would cost about $1 million.
“I think I have a right as an American to build a house on my property if I have access,” Cohen said.
But Pacheco said Cohen is misinterpreting the meaning of “hardship” under the zoning bylaws. The hardship must be on the land not the owner. There is no hardship if there is a way to access the land through the frontage, no matter how expensive, Pacheco said.
Cohen’s attorney, Kevin P. McRoy of Wynn & Wynn in Raynham, could not be reached for comment.