CEDAR GROVE, NJ – After years of hearings and testimony, the Cedar Grove Zoning Board finally voted on the proposed expansion of St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church at its meeting Tuesday, denying the application with a 4-3 vote.
The church located off of Bradford Avenue on Woodstone Drive was seeking approval from the board to expand the church to offer more seating and more parking. The application has been before the Zoning Board and under discussion for several years. Residents of the neighborhood have voiced many concerns, including an increase in traffic, which is reportedly already bad, the potential changes to property value and the community, the number of variances needed to pass the application, environmental impact as the plan calls for cutting down 110 trees, and parking concerns.
The original plan submitted by the church required 19 variances to address parking regulations, building height and a variety of other exceptions to current zoning laws. At the end of a lengthy meeting on April 12, several board members expressed the opinion that while the church did show a need for renovation, the broad scope of the project made it difficult to grant approval. Robert Gaccione, the attorney representing St. Mark’s, agreed to submit another plan to the board, reducing the scope of the project.
At Tuesday’s meeting the board heard two additional testimonies from architect Navil Mijalli and site engineer Carlos Bertin about the changes implemented to reduce the magnitude of the building.
According to Mijalli the new plan reduced the overall volume of the structure by approximately 25 percent. He noted that the height of the building is 35 feet from the average grade and the maximum height of the steeple is now 45 feet from the average grade, both of which comply with current zoning regulations. Mijalli testified that the church’s footprint was reduced from 8,840 square feet to 8,060 square feet. Mijalli also pointed out that they had changed the color of the church to more muted earth tones to blend with the environment.
Bertin explained that the new plan reduced seating from 418 to 368 seats. He noted that the actual footprint of the church would have been reduced by approximately 1,200 square feet rather than 780 square feet, except for a design change which enclosed stairs that were originally exposed to the outdoors. Bertin also was able to eliminate a parking lot, which put the plan in compliance with current restrictions regarding impervious lot coverage.
Attorney for the opposition Anthony Fiorello said the changes were not enough and that the project was still too large for a residential neighborhood.
“This is uncharacteristic of the neighborhood. It’s massive and it doesn’t belong here,” Fiorello said. “At the last meeting I called this the incredible shrinking church – first it was 564 seats transferred to 501 seats reduced to 436 seats, further reduced to 418 seats and now we have 348 seats. Each time the architect has testified that this is what the church needs and requires. There is nothing to stop them from reducing it further. It can’t be done because they don’t want to do it. They’d rather have this uncharacteristic structure in a residential neighborhood.”
Gaccione argued that the church had made a good faith effort to reduce the size of the church and accommodate the residents in the neighborhood. He also stated that the church was more than willing to add additional landscaping and adjust the light schedule to accommodate the neighborhood. He added that the new plan would improve the problems with traffic and congestion that already exist in the neighborhood. “The current situation will see a dramatic improvement if this application is approved,” Gaccione stated.
Board member James Caporrino said he felt the church had done what the board asked of it and reduced the scope of the project. He said he would vote to approve the application with the condition that absolutely all on-street parking would be prohibited on Woodstone Drive.
Board member Cheryl Brown said while she appreciated the efforts of the church to reduce the impact on the surrounding neighborhood, she just couldn’t vote to approve such a large building being constructed in a residential neighborhood. Board member Joseph Zichelli echoed Brown’s opinion that a church that large didn’t belong in that area. Chairman Joseph DiBlasio said he thought the proposed building was beautiful and that he wished there was another location for the church to be built in Cedar Grove, where a residential neighborhood would not be so heavily impacted.