Last week’s Cedar Grove Zoning Board meeting left residents frustrated and church members hopeful as a newly drafted application to expand St. Mark’s Coptic Church was accepted by board members to be heard and considered; though not approved.
Anticipating an extended hearing, board Chairman Joseph DeBlasio requested that all other matters on a Tuesday, June 10 agenda be considered before the much anticipated church hearing, which was first discussed in December 2012 but delayed due to environmental setbacks. The church originally planned to demolish its existing 7,517-square-foot structure on 5 Woodstone Drive to build a larger, 10,586-sqare-foot space. However, church attorney Robert Gaccione began the hearing with a proposal to scrap the initial application.
“We plan to proceed all over again,” Gaccione said. “It was determined that there were wetlands on the grounds, which is why we could not continue. There had to be an application to the DEP (Department of Environmental Protection). That took an extended period of time. That application was eventually approved on April 2 of this year. And, I thought it best that in a period of time close to a year and a half of when it started that it would be better to serve and start anew.”
Following much objection from Anthony Fiorello, an attorney representing 30 residents who say they would be directly affected by the church’s expansion and construction, board members determined that it was within Gaccione’s rights to present a new application.
Compared to the original 18 variances required in 2013, the new plan calls for less. However, the exact figure was unknown as of press time. Other changes included the footprint of the church, which was reduced to 9,482-square feet; bringing the proposed square footage closer to the existing 7,517-square-feet. The number of seats in the facility has been reduced by 56, changing the original proposal of 492 seats to 436; all in view of the alter. Also, according to site engineer Calisto Bertin, “reducing the number of seats has also reduced the parking demand for the project by 18 spaces, leaving the total number of on-site spaces to be 178 instead of the prior proposed 196 parking spaces.”
Gaccione’s list of witnesses included Bertin, who was cross-examined in a previous hearing more than 17 months ago, and Janet Yousef, a St. Mark’s Church representative. Gaccione also planned to have witness testimony from the site’s architect, but was unable to do so.
According to Yousef, a church member since 1992, there are about 200 families who are currently members of the church. Out of those families, 25 live in Cedar Grove. The church’s proposed expansion would not increase the number of parishioners, Yousef said, mainly due to the price of real estate in Cedar Grove. It’s likely parishioners who enter the country would gravitate more toward Coptic churches in Jersey City, Bayonne and other cities closer to the border, she added.
As the Archdiocese of North America, the Cedar Grove location services all other Coptic churches, Yousef said. It houses up to 400 people twice a year for holidays and up to 500 people when Pope Shenouda III visited in 2010.
“We are hoping to get a visit [from the Pope] once a year,” Yousef said.
When it came to Yousef’s testimony, the opposing council made it known that expertise testimony could not be substituted with a local parishioner’s opinion.
“She is not a planner or traffic engineer. Yet her testimony is now going into the area of expertise where she is not qualified,” Fiorello said.
Fiorello then asked if Yousef knew how many “bodies” were members of the church; attempting to clarify Yousef’s original testimony of 200 families being church members. Yousef, again not knowing the answer, gave way for audience members and residents to shout out figures of “800 people,” prompting board members to order that an accurate figure of members be presented by the next meeting.
Residents also took their opportunity to question Yousef.
Highpoint residents Raymond Concetta and Stacy Kilkenny were among the few to do so. Concetta inquired whether the church planned to turn its Cedar Grove locale into a Diocesan center to serve all surrounding Coptic facilities. When Yousef asked for the question to be restated, Concetta commented, “oh, I’m sorry. My questions weren’t rehearsed.”
Immediately following, Kilkenny took to the stage, first stating that as a Buddhist, her religion believes that spirits live in the trees.
“I’m wondering in your religion, is there an obligation to the environment?” Kilkenny asked, referring to the 111 trees that would be cut down in order to erect the church’s new structure.
The board interjected before Yousef could reply and warned Kilkenny about comparing religions in a democratic society.
Yousef, advised that she no longer needed to be at the witness stand, passed the torch to the second witness; site engineer Bertin, who planned to testify to all of the changes made to the prior application.
After exceeding three hours of hearings, testimony and public questioning, the board agreed to adjourn the meeting in the midst of Bertin’s testimony.
The hearing is expected to resume July 8 at 8 p.m. at Town Hall, 525 Pompton Ave.