St. Mark's Church and Cat Control Focus of Year's First Town Council Meeting

Credits: Chris Harewood
The Tuesday West Orange Township Council meeting. Credits: Chris Harewood

WEST ORANGE, NJ - The swearing in of the new Council President, updates on the fire at St. Mark’s Church, and the first reading of an ordinance that will allow cats to be managed and cared for in a controlled environment were the main topics of Tuesday’s West Orange Township Council meeting.

New Council President Sworn In

Councilman Victor Cirilo was officially sworn in as the next Town Council President. His first act as president was to commend previous president Jerry Guarino for his service.

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“We want to thank him for his services as council president last year,” he said. Cirilo noted that Guarino had some recent health troubles, had gone to get treated and will be fine.

“We’re happy to see your smile and your energy back,” he said.

“All I can say is that it was an experience,” Guarino said in response to his health scare. “All I can recommend to everyone is to live in a hearty and healthy environment. Don’t put anything off to the last minute because it could be the difference between life and death.” 

Guarino thanked colleagues and friends for the thoughts and prayers, and said that the doctors told him he’d “be here for a very long time.”  

St. Mark’s Fire Update

The meeting then focused attention on the fire at the St. Mark’s church that took place on New Year’s Day.

Business Administrator John Sayers gave a brief update on the aftermath of the fire.

“First of all, I’d like to commend all the people in the township who responded to this unfortunate, tragic event,” he said. “I think they did an admirable job keeping it under control. Unfortunately, they couldn’t do enough to save the building.” 

Sayers said the township sent some engineers out to the site of the church to analyze it. He said that they also talked to church owners and issued them an Unsafe Structure Notice explaining that they had to bring in some people to look at the building and get it to the point where it is stabilized and safe. The owners were told they have until the middle of January to stabilize everything, and also gave the township a timeframe to have their own structural engineers come in. Sayers said that the township has yet to hear a formal recommendation on what to with the church.

The council shared sit thoughts on the incident.

“It was devastating,” said Councilman Joe Krakoviak. “It pretty much burned everything that is wood. There were six or seven different fire companies that responded and tried to put it out. It’s been a landmark in the town for nearly 200 years.”

Krakoviak also emphasized that the head of the Historical Preservation Committee will be involved in the process of deciding where to go from here.

Guarino called the burning of the building, which was constructed in 1827, a tragic loss.

“It’s a focal part of the downtown corridor,” he said. “It’s a part of our community and history.”

Guarino said he wanted to see cooperation among everyone involved so that they can do as much as they can to save, maintain, and rebuild the structure if possible. 

There was also deep concern and sadness from residents who showed up to express their feelings about the St. Mark’s church. One resident said the church is a “national treasure of incalculable historic significance.”  Another said that the future of the historic site is in the hands of the owners of the church, but also the township council, Historic Preservation Committee, and all others in any way affected by the site in some way. And, another resident said that the property is still a historic site, and therefore will need HPC approval before anything can be done to it – such as demolition. 

Feral Cats Ordinance Read

Next up, cat enthusiasts showed up in droves to support the reading of a first ordinance to permit the managed care of feral cats in the area. Cirilo commented that the Town Council is comfortable addressing the issue.

“We felt a lot of pressure because the population was getting out of control,” he said. He also said he hoped the new program will work in getting the cats vaccinated and neutered. 

“We worked hard on this,” Guarino said of the ordinance. He acknowledged the rocky start of the relationship between the TNVR (Trap, Neuter, Vaccinate, and Release) advocates and the township, which came to the point where residents threated to sue the township.

“That doesn’t get us anywhere,” he said. “When we put our heads together, we can cooperate.”

Guarino praised those who came up with a “well-put-together” presentation about the mission to help contain the cats and get training, volunteers and more.

All resolutions were approved, with resolutions J and N being pulled by Council Krakoviak, who voted no on both. More information on the resolutions can be found here.

The next Town Council meeting is scheduled for Jan. 19 at 6:30 pm. Residents are encouraged to attend.

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