When Ben and Joei Uselman sit on the patio of their West End home, they have an unimpeded view of the Mormon Temple.
The Uselmans’ house sits adjacent to the temple grounds. The Rimrocks rise up behind the house they have lived in for more than 12 years.
Like nearby neighbors, the couple had concerns when officials of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced in late August 1996 its intention to build the temple on 33 acres north of Rimrock Road and west of the Palisades Park Subdivision.
The Uselmans worried about how the traffic, noise and lights would affect their quiet neighborhood. Other neighbors argued that a large, very visible regional facility would affect the character of the residential area, especially so near the Rims.
By the time the Billings City Council voted on annexing the church-owned land in late October 1996, nearly 1,200 people showed up for the meeting.
A public hearing nearly a year later drew 800 people and lasted until 4 a.m. A month later, the council approved the annexation.
And in October 1997, the temple cleared the final hurdle when City Council members approved the special review application required before any church or place of worship can be built in an area zoned for single-family residences.
Former Billings City Councilman Michael Larson said he can’t think of any other issue during his eight-year tenure that generated more debate than the temple.
“I was not prepared in any way, shape or form for the controversy and the intensity of the whole thing,” Larson said.
Larson, who represented Ward 5 where the temple is located, met with unhappy neighbors.
“A lot of the neighbors’ concerns had to do with the fact that they were not getting answers in terms of the size of the temple,” he said. “There were a lot of wild rumors about it being gigantic.”
The effect of lighting a large building in a residential neighborhood also was on their minds, Larson said. And they told him they didn’t believe they were getting adequate answers from church officials on other details of the building.
Dan MacDonald was a neighbor and member of the Rims Preservation Society that protested putting the temple being in a residential area. He said he felt nothing but frustration when he tried to work with church officials on compromises he thought everyone could live with.
“I had never been treated so poorly by a group of people who said they wanted to collaborate and work together,” MacDonald said.
He said the process disturbed him so much that he and his family moved out of the neighborhood. Ironically, they built a house atop the Rims and now have the temple’s spotlights streaming into their windows.
On the council, Larson said he also heard from people who objected to the temple on religious grounds. Or they didn’t like the fact that, unlike most churches built in residential areas, the temple was closed to all but LDS members in good standing.
“I think you have to be honest and say there was a fair amount of the issue that revolved around what church it was,” he said.
He believes, though, that “we would have had a large protest if it had been a large Catholic church, if it was Faith Chapel or a Lutheran church.”
Larson was among the majority of council members who voted 6-5 against the initial annexation request in October 1996. He voted that way to give the city more time to have all of its questions answered by the church.
Nearly a year later, in September 1997, Larson voted to annex the 33 acres. He then voted with the majority of the council to approve the application for special review a month later.
Now, Larson said, the temple has “become part of the landscape to me. I don’t live up there, but it just doesn’t draw my attention anymore.”
MacDonald said he has talked to friends who live near the temple “who aren’t particularly fond of it. They’ve just learned to live with it.”
For his part, Ben Uselman said he and Joei never opposed the temple for religious reasons. “That’s part of America’s freedom, to worship as you choose,” he said.
And traffic has never been a problem, he said, but “we’re still affected by the lighting.”
The lights come on at dusk and, by city ordinance, must be shut off by 10:30 p.m.
Uselman said two spotlights on the west side of the building that shine on the steeple glare toward the east and rob the couple of the opportunity to enjoy the gradually darkening skies as they sit on their patio. The lights also shine into their bedroom.
Uselman said he wouldn’t mind meeting with temple officials to see if the problem could be resolved. But he hasn’t pushed the issue.
“There are bigger issues in life, and life is too fleeting,” he said.
Beyond the lighting, Uselman said the temple has been “a good neighbor.”
“There has been nothing in their efforts or actions that have been negative toward the neighbors,” he said.
Other temples more controversial
Billings isn’t the only place in the United States where a Mormon temple has stirred controversy.
Some residents in a Portland, Ore., suburb were unhappy with the temple’s height, lighting and its location in a residential area. That project was completed in 1989.
LDS officials battled four years to get a temple built in a Nashville, Tenn., suburb and only succeeded after picking a second site.
And although residents of Boston, Mass., and Newport, Calif., protested steeple heights, the Boston temple was completed in 2000, and the Newport temple is expected to open in early 2005.