Controversy over lighting of cross in Northeast Kingdom
LYNDON, Vt. -
For years, a cross has been a symbol of Richard and Joan Downings' faith.
"Their life is really centered around their Catholic faith," said Jim O'Reilly, the Downing's son-in-law.
But it has also been the center of controversy on Darling Hill in Lyndon.
"We never thought this was a fight that needed to be had, freedom of religion, we aren't being able to express that," O'Reilly said.
Back in 2007, the Downings erected the 24-foot by 9-foot cross outside of the Chapel of the Holy Family, which they privately own. At night they would illuminate it. But neighbors complained it was too bright. The town told the Downings they needed a permit for the cross. It ordered the lights turned off and the cross cut in half.
"If we allow a cross to be lit at that size, any commercial business could then come in and say we want a sign this big, lit 24 hours a day," said Justin Smith, the Lyndon zoning administrator.
The Downings and the town eventually reached a compromise. The cross could stay at its original size and could be lit during Advent from dusk to dawn. But the state stepped in and said the cross needed an Act 250 permit ordered the religious symbol come down.
"It was due to how it affected the character of the area. It is probably the, if not the most scenic in Lyndon, one of the top two or three, certainly," Smith said.
For the next three years the Downings and the state fought over the cross in court. An environmental court judge made a final ruling on the issue last year. The cross could stay at its current size and be lit, but only for only one hour during sunset and only during Lent-- a week in September to celebrate the birth of Mary-- and during Advent.
"It allows the Downings to celebrate something they could believe in but not disturb the neighbors, as well," Smith said.
"I'm not happy with it," O'Reilly said. "I think it's kind of sad that they can light it from sunset, for one hour, basically it still bright out from sunset for one hour and it's not really going to shine, and that's the whole purpose behind the cross."
The Downings, who also live in Massachusetts, could not be here Wednesday night due to health issues.
I spoke to a number of neighbors. They declined to go on camera, saying they just want to put this issue behind them. But they all said they thought the judge's ruling was fair.