By Ron Leir
It took nearly a year for St. Mary & St. Mercurius Coptic Orthodox Church to get local approvals to build a dome-shaped youth center and parking garage on Academy St.
But neighbors went to court to block the project and, last month, they got a judge to do what they wanted by overturning the Belleville Zoning Board of Adjustment’s decision favoring the project.
And now, the church has to start all over again to make its case.
Still, the church’s attorney Frank J. Cozzarelli is optimistic that the church will ultimately succeed because he’ll be presenting a revised plan aimed at appeasing some of the neighbors’ concerns.
In September 2012, after months of contentious hearings, the zoning board voted 7-0 to grant the church’s application for the proposed $5 million 125-foot-wide dome that would accommodate space for church youth programs and three levels of parking for 96 cars, plus a surface lot (shared with the township library) for 30 additional cars, next to the existing church. That decision was memorialized by a board resolution adopted in November 2012.
Opponents, led by Rutgers Court Associates and their attorney Joseph Fiorenzo, griped that the construction would be a “massive expansion of a non-conforming structure in the middle of a residential neighborhood” and a “massive deviation from the township zoning code,” likely to inundate the block with additional cars and traffic and potential flooding from storm water runoff.
Cozzarelli countered that the church is a “conditional” – not “non-conforming” use and, therefore, not subject to as stringent zoning standards as would apply to a “nonconforming” use. He said that parking will be adequate for the scheduled activities at the church and that storm water management controls will be put in place.
The zoning board conditioned its approval on the church satisfying certain conditions, including: providing a 15-foot setback on the west side yard, limiting access to Rutgers Court for funerals and weddings and posting security cameras in the garage.
But, after Rutgers Court Associates appealed, a lengthy judicial deliberation process followed, leading, ultimately, to an order filed Feb. 3, 2014, by Superior Court Judge Edith K. Payne, sitting in Newark, setting aside the zoning board action, essentially, on legal technicalities.
In her ruling, Judge Payne said she agreed with Fiorenzo that “… the Church’s notice of its application was deficient, in that it gave an incorrect address for the proposed development, neglected to inform interested persons that the development would require the demolition of three residential structures and the consolidation of those properties, and failed to give a sense of the scale of the proposed structure, which Rutgers Court describes as ‘a colossal 18,448-square foot’ ’55-foot-high monolithic domed structure with a variety of uses.’
“Without doubt, an accurate identification of the property subject to development is required in any notice provided to the public of an application to a zoning board of adjustment. … In the present matter, the notice made reference only to 125 Academy St. However, the development also required the demolition of residences at 147 Academy St., 145 Academy St. and 143 Academy St. ….”
Given that the 125 Academy St. is the legal address of the church, “then there is no doubt that an incorrect location was given for the development, and the error was not inconsequential,” the judge said.
“Further, the absence in the notice of any indication that residences were to be demolished, that the lots on which they were situated were to be combined into a single lot to permit the construction of a large four-story structure and [the absence] of any description of the size and scale of that proposed building created further deficiencies in the notice provided….”
That omission, the court said, is significant because it failed to alert neighbors on the full particulars of the development and the fact that they may impacted so they could decide whether or not to participate in the hearing on the application.
For all these reasons, Payne said, the zoning board’s resolution “was void.”
Responding to a concern raised by Rutgers Court that “ … the Church will, in effect, be given the opportunity to redo its application to the [zoning] Board, and that the efforts and expenditures incurred by Rutgers Court in opposing the initial [application] will have been for naught,” Payne said she would “decline to address” the merits of the case.
Jon Campbell, who served as the board’s counsel until stepping down recently, predicted that the hearing on the new application “would be a lot more speedy with the adjustments being made by the applicant.”
Cozzarelli said the church’s intent is to “come in with a fresh application” that will reflect “some revisions” including a new “parking schematic” and “alterations to our design for a non-structure wall to buffer Rutgers Court so as to step up a property dividing line.”
Cozzarelli said he has submitted the revised plan to the township zoning officer and building department for review. “I think our new plan is in good shape now and we should be refilling [the application] within the next week to 10 days,” he added.
Asked if he expected as lengthy a hearing process as the initial round, Cozzarelli said he was anticipating “a more streamlined approach.”