Court Again Involved In Issues With 293 West Clay Avenue

The property at 293 West Clay Avenue – formerly rented out by “Easy Fitness With Jeannie” until the Roselle Park Municipal Land Use Board (MLUB) denied its application earlier this year, thereby closing its doors for good – was once again in front of Union County Court Judge Karen M. Cassidy to have a temporary stay from a Certificate of Occupancy (C.O.) denial issued against House of Worship Church, the new tenant at that location.

The hearing was to determine if the Church, led by Pastor Desmond Yarborough, could hold services which were abruptly stopped in September after Mayor Joseph Accardi contacted the Roselle Park Police Chief to notify him that there was no Certificate of Occupancy for the church and that they were conducting business without one.

Judge Cassidy allowed for a temporary injunction to allow the church to resume Sunday services until the matter could be heard before the MLUB on Monday, October 20th. This gives House Of Worship Church the ability to hold services for, at least, three Sundays at what Pastor Yarborough thought was going to be their new home last month.

“This is a wonderful blessing,” said Pastor Yarborough after the hearing regarding the injunction, “We had been holding services in various locations, including a hotel, and we wanted to find a place to call our own. We thought we had found that place in Roselle Park and were enthusiastic to plant ourselves in the community and be part of the community.”

Originally, the church had filed for a C.O. for use – which was permitted by Roselle Park Land Use Code 40-2202 – under NAICS Group 8131. A letter of denial was issued by the municipality’s Code Enforcement Office claiming a parking issue. The parking for that property was set at eight (8) spaces – as was discussed during the application hearing for “Easy Fitness With Jeannie”. According to Church attorney William Courtney, the lease for the church is for 1,600 ft2. Using that calculation, the mandated parking spaces for the church is 6.4 or seven spaces, rounding up.

The mayor called me and he’s concerned about some property on West Clay Avenue

That was at the end of August. Then, on September 5th, police recordings revealed that Mayor Accardi had contacted Police Chief Paul Morrison that night on his private number. The police chief then called into the Roselle Park Police Department (RPPD) and spoke with the Officer In Charge, RPPD officer Richard Gaylord.

“The mayor called me and he’s concerned about some property on West Clay Avenue,” Police Chief Morrison stated to officer Gaylord, “[The mayor] said he got complaints about people going in and out of the property by 301 West Clay Avenue and there’s no C.O. on that property yet and there’s been issues there in the past.”

The Police Chief also stated that the mayor called him and said that neighbors were complaining that they are conducting business. No calls were logged into the police during this time from any residents complaining to the police department. Police Chief Morrison instructed officer Gaylord to document where the complaints came from and to see if any business was being conducted. He also instructed the officer to document everything.

Afterwards, RPPD Officer Gaylord called the Roselle Park Code Enforcement Officer Carl Pluchino.

“You’re talking about 293 West Clay Avenue,” stated Mr. Pluchino immediately, apparently already knowing about the situation.

Officer Gaylord stated to Mr. Pluchino that they were responding to a call made by the mayor regarding the lack of a certificate of occupancy.

“They have none,” said Mr. Pluchino.

Officer Gaylord responded, “This is really not anything to do with us.”

Mr. Pluchino added that he was nowhere near Roselle Park at the moment. He went on to state, “We told them that they didn’t have a certificate of occupancy. They wanted to have an affair, for the celebration of the church.”

That affair, according to Pastor Yarborough, was a blessing of the church.

Mr. Pluchino said he told Mr. Courtney about the lack of a C.O. and stated that he was told that people might show up anyway and they would have to be turned away. Mr. Pluchino added that he was going to call the Borough Attorney, Richard Huxford, to see if they wanted to handle it.

Mr. Pluchino then began to ask officer Gaylord about the specifics of whether there was a service going on. After answering a few questions and after having Mr. Pluchino state that the police could be a witness to the event, officer Gaylord stated, “To be honest, I’d rather have you leave the police out of this.”

“Who called the police?” asked Mr. Pluchino.

“The matter was addressed from the mayor,” was the response from officer Gaylord.

From that time until today, the church could not hold any services at the location it had leased out from George D’Agostino. Mr. D’Agostino currently is awaiting the finalization of a lawsuit he filed against the municipality regarding harassment at that same location in 2010.

So, starting this Sunday, House Of Worship Church will be holding Sunday services starting at 10 in the morning until October 20th, when they go before the MLUB to have them hear their case. If the MLUB denies their application, Mr. Courtney stated he will be back in court to amend their original filing to include the denial.

According to the United States Department Of Justice website, [RLUIPA] prohibits zoning laws that ‘substantially burden the religious exercise of churches’…

Additionally, Mr. Courtney stated that the municipality violated the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) and, thereby, violated the civil rights of the church and its members. RLUIPA, according to the United States Department Of Justice website (link), prohibits zoning laws that ‘substantially burden the religious exercise of churches or other religious assemblies or institutions absent the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest’.  RLUIPA prohibits zoning laws that – among other things – ‘treat churches or other religious assemblies or institutions on less than equal terms with nonreligious institutions’  and unreasonably limit religious assemblies, institutions, or structures within a jurisdiction’.

If for some reason the MLUB cannot hear the matter on the 20th, either due to lack of a quorum since some MLUB members cannot hear the case due to a conflict of interest – either living or owning property within 200 feet of the premises – the stay will expire and the court will have to extend the injunction again.

The MLUB meeting is scheduled at 7 p.m. in Borough Hall.