At long last, Coptic Church wins right to build dome

Photo courtesy by Ron Leir/ Rev. Luke Istafanuos and parishioner exchanged congratulatory hug after zoning board vote.


By Ron Leir

Observer Correspondent


After many months and hundreds of pages worth of testimony, St. Mary & St. Mercurius Coptic Orthodox Church has gotten the OK from the Belleville Zoning Board of Adjustment to build a 45-feet-high domeshaped Youth Center and parking garage next to the church on Academy Street.

But the project won’t happen anytime soon, according to the church’s attorney Frank Cozzarelli.

“We’ve still got to go (to the Planning Board) for site plan approval so there’s quite a distance to construction,” Cozzarelli said.

And there could be further delay if an appeal of the zoning board’s 7-0 decision last Thursday night is filed by the primary opponent of the project – Rutgers Court LLC – represented by Hackensack attorney Joseph Fiorenzo.

But, for the moment, the church is savoring its victory in a protracted hearing process stretching from November 2011 which lawyers for both sides conceded, was marked by their “contentious” behavior. At one recent hearing, for example, after Fiorenzo objected to the use of an exhibit by the applicant, Cozzarelli grabbed the posterboard drawing and tossed into onto a bench in the audience in disgust.

Thursday night, however, both adversaries were calm and collected as they presented lengthy summaries of their clients’ positions as a full house of church members, objectors and observers – including Mayor Ray Kimble – sat in rapt attention.

Fiorenzo hammered away at the same issues he’d raised during the hearings: the 126 spaces proposed – 96 in the garage and 30 outside, to be shared with the adjacent Public Library – were “woefully inadequate” based on the space taken up by the proposed chapel, meeting rooms, computer rooms, kitchen and other ancillary uses within the dome structure.

Inside the garage, the size of the proposed parking stalls was also “inadequate,” Fiorenzo said.

Plus, the seven bulk variances being sought represented a “massive expansion of a non-conforming structure in the middle of a residential neighborhood” and “massive deviation from the township zoning code,” Fiorenzo added. In addition, the church, the attorney asserted, had “made no effort to mitigate” the impact the dome would have on its neighbors, blocking light and air, adding more traffic to an already congested area and posing a threat of flooding from storm water runoff.

Fiorenzo urged zoning board members to ask themselves, “How would you feel if you woke up one morning and found a massive building next to your home?”

While a church can be considered an “inherently beneficial use” to a community, Fiorenzo said, “the (thrust) of this application is about much more – this is, in effect, a community center for which you (board members) must undertake a separate analysis of its non-core functions.”

Based on such an analysis, the project “is not appropriate for the site.”

“There’s only one conclusion you can come to,” Fiorenzo reasoned. “It’s a nobrainer. This application is so materially deficient that this application has to be denied.”

In light of what he called the application’s “substantial deviation” from the township’s zoning regulations, if the zoning board sees fit to grant the land use variances requested, “You might as well tear (those laws) up and throw them away,” the attorney declared.

“I ask you (board members) to send a message that our ordinances mean something…. Deny this application,” Fiorenzo said.

Speaking for the applicant, Cozzarelli dismissed his opponent’s arguments, telling the board that, “What you’ve heard is a wish list of what the standards are, according to the objector.” But, he added, the facts are otherwise.

In this case, Cozzarelli said, a church is considered a “conditional” – not a “non-conforming” use – in the zoning designated for the Academy Street site and, therefore, the zoning standards are more relaxed than Fiorenzo would have the board believe, he suggested.

As for the parking, Cozzarelli insisted that the number of spaces being provided is enough to cover the need. “The computations are accurate,” he said. If anything, the lawyer said, the dome garage will take cars off the street so it will “not bother the neighbors.” In fact, he added, the Coptic Church will be “one of the few churches in Belleville that provide (on-site) parking.”

Traffic in and out of the dome garage, he said, will be controlled “in and out of Academy Street, all in a safe and convenient way.”

Because the church is planning functions in the dome on a fixed weekend and Wednesday night schedule, there will “not be a steady flow of traffic in and out of the area,” Cozzarelli added.

The size of the garage parking stalls are the same as those in the Belleville Municipal Building’s parking lot, he noted.

There will be storm management controls put in place that will prevent any flooding of neighbors’ properties, he said.

Yes, Cozzarelli acknowledged, the dome will be big in scale but so are hospitals, apartment buildings and senior citizen housing, which, he said, are also permitted in this zone.

Construction of a monolithic dome structure, said Cozzarelli, is probably unique in New Jersey and “is comparable to the Pantheon” and a significant historical architectural feature.

By granting this application, he said, the board can “recognize a faith that predates Christianity, people who were chased from their homeland and who were persecuted around the world. We can now offer them a safe haven to practice their faith.”

In its public deliberations, before voting, the board – at the behest of its chairman A. J. Del Guercio – drafted a list of conditions which Del Guercio said the applicant would have to meet if it was granted the variances – which, in fact, the board, without argument, did grant.

Under those conditions, the church will be required to provide a 15-foot setback on the west side yard; devise an “obstruction-free” passage for cars in the garage; provide a fire suppression system on the parking deck; install bollards in the rear of the site; allow no vehicular access to Rutgers Court except for funerals and weddings; provide an electronic gate for the garage and strategically post security cameras; hire a police officer for a security detail after services; ensure that the thickness of the dome columns meets industry standards.

After the board vote, the largely partisan audience broke into applause and cheered. The Rev. Luke Istafanous, one of two priests assigned to the Coptic Church, said: “We are so happy and thankful to the zoning board. This will definitely help the community (since) the Coptic Church promotes morals and good standards of life.”

A church member holding her child said the board’s decision “means a lot. The church is our second home. It’s a safe place for our kids to be and to hear the voice of God.”

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