The Municipal Land Use Board (MLUB), on November 3rd, formally memorialized their upholding of Zoning Officer’s decision to deny a waiver of site plan review for a change in tenancy to Heart Of Worship Church (HOW), located at 293 West Clay Avenue.
The actual hearing was in October and had MLUB Vice-President Diane Kurz hear the matter, as President Loren Harms had to recuse himself from the interoperation hearing since he owned property within 200 feet of the applicant.
Even before the 90-minute interpretation hearing started, Heart Of Worship Attorney William Courtney – who was also the attorney for the property owner of 293 West Clay Avenue, George D’Agostino – questioned the procedure for the public comment portion and asked if the testimony portion could be completed, then allow for public comment in between the hearing and a decision by the Board. He was told by Mrs. Kurz and acting MLUB Attorney Nicholas A. Giuditta, III – who was appointed as Special Conflict Council for the hearing due to a conflict of interest with the Board’s Attorney Michael Tripodi – that the hearing was an appeal from a zoning officer’s interpretation decision. This course of action contradicted steps taken by the very same Board in February of this year when both Mrs. Kurz and Mr. Giuditta allowed public comment for the interpretation hearing to appeal the Code Construction Official’s interpretation decision regarding “Easy Fitness With Jeannie” before a decision was rendered but after questions were asked of the applicant.
The interpretation hearing proceeded with almost every single question coming from the Chair with the remainder of the Board silent for almost the meeting.
Heart Of Worship did not need to apply for a site plan review since the use of the building for religious purposes was allowed in that zone but they needed to submit a waiver of a site plan. Issues arose when the church applied for the Waiver of a Site Plan.
“Our zoning officer reviewed their application and denied it because of lack of parking,” stated Mrs. Kurz. The Zoning Officer Lynn Vinegra, wife of Borough Planner Vincent Vinegra who is the owner of Harbor Consultants, was in attendance at the meeting.
Mr. Courtney, speaking on behalf of the church, stated that Heart Of Worship was not renting the entire building but a portion of it – approximately 1,600 sq. ft. and looking at the relevant ordinance, one parking space for every 250 sq. ft was required, needing approximately seven spaces. The entire building is 3,100 sq. ft. and no other tenant was expected in the rest of the building according to Mr. Courtney, acting in that instance as the attorney for property owner George D’Agostino.
“I think the denial was clear. That it was denied for parking,” stated Mr. Courtney, asserting that the denial for parking reasons was not a valid reason.
Mrs. Vinegra admitted that she was unaware that they were renting only 1,600 sq. ft. and when the applicant sent in the lease to clarify that issue, at that point, Mrs. Vinegra refused to review the docuemtanation, stating that an appeal had been submitted and now it needed to go before the board.
“I sit on this Board as a volunteer. I’m not speaking for everyone else but maybe they would agree with me,” stated Mrs. Kurz, “We want this town to succeed and we want this to work if it can so we are always looking at things not how can we shoot it down but how can we make it work.”
Mrs. kurz then continued to herself provide testimony while sitting as the Chair that she visited the church on three separate occasions, although she did not provide any corroborative evidence that she was only there three times. She testified that on one occasion, a Friday evening, there were 10 cars in the lot and 11 cars on another occasion, a Sunday – more than the seven (7) spaces the applicant stated it was going to adhere to. Mrs. Kurz refused to allow any testimony on violations from either neighboring business regarding parking. One of those businesses, Iorio Deli, had been involved in a lawsuit with Mr. D’Agostino.
In the end, the MLUB voted to uphold the decision of the Zoning Officer although no specific parking issue was ever addressed by the municipality. A stay was given to the church to hold services and the decision by the MLUB has since resulted in the church continue with its lawsuit against the board and the municipality for their decision as well as infringement of Constitutional rights.