Paritosh Chakrabarti arrived in the United States decades ago from India fresh out of college, with $8 in his pocket and an outsize ambition.
Now a millionaire, the Moorestown resident wants to construct an ashram in Voorhees whose members would be devoted to researching religious conflict and its origins. The site would host 20 scholars and scientists from around the world for a free, five-year residency to study how to achieve world peace.
Chakrabarti passed the first hurdle for making this dream come true late Thursday at a Voorhees Township Zoning Board meeting. After four hours of presentations and clashes between attorneys, the board voted by 5-2 in favor of a use variance for the property Chakrabarti wants to use.
The proposed ashram would sit on seven acres of undeveloped land on Centennial Boulevard next to Centennial Mill, a 55-and-older community, some of whose residents have expressed opposition to the plan. More than 100 residents of Centennial Mill attended Thursday night’s meeting to voice their concerns.
Those against the proposed ashram said they are concerned about noise and traffic the project would generate. Others said Chakrabarti’s plans have caused friction rather than peace.
“A goal of world peace is indeed a lofty goal, an admirable one; however, I have come to believe that this man who has behaved in these ways is not really a person who wants to work for world peace,” Marlene Kaplan, a Centennial Mill resident and clinical social worker, told the board Thursday. “For all of these reasons I oppose this project.”
Charles Frost, another Centennial Mill resident, said he was disappointed how the planning process has divided the Voorhees community.
“My concern, and probably some others’ too, is, will the architecture of this ashram be consistent with the community behind it?” Frost said in an interview Friday. “If the purpose of this ashram is world peace, then how come at this moment we’re involved in this controversy?”
Chakrabarti, owner of the global chemical company PMC Group in Mount Laurel, said in an interview that he understands the apprehension Centennial Mill residents would have about a religious institution so near their homes.
His ashram will not be a religious institution, he said. It will be more of a “think tank” on religious conflict and how to bring about world peace through the study of science, philosophy, and religion.
“It’s a place for scholarly work on a task that has a spiritual component in it,” Chakrabarti said. “I don’t want it to be religious. However, it will bring a synthesis among religions. That’s why I chose the term ashram.”
Now that Chakrabarti has received zoning approval, he will formally purchase the lot and then submit a site plan and apply for construction permits. He envisions a structure with living quarters for 20 scholars, a library, and a small event space with parking. The project, he said, would cost about $7 million to build.
The board’s decision can be appealed, and some Centennial Mill homeowners left Thursday night’s meeting saying litigation was a possibility.
“When I started the project, I had no illusion that it would be without any objections," Chakrabarti said. "I knew that any other noble project, like the ideas of the Gandhis, Martin Luther Kings, and the Lincolns of the world, also faced similar resistance.”
“But we know now that these are good ideas and represent the truth about humanity," he added.