After more than three months of public hearings, the Bayonne Zoning Board of Adjustment voted to approve the expansion of a downtown Coptic Church, citing changes made to the original project that would solve some of the problems the church has had with neighbors.
After being authorized by regional religious leaders to incorporate in 2003, The Virgin Mary and Saint John Coptic Church moved into the church on 20th Street in 2005. It will now expand on that street.
“We’re not dealing with just any applicant. This applicant is really made up of people.” -- William Finnerty
A different Coptic church at 63rd Street also plans to expand, but could not accommodate the increasing number of Coptic Christians coming into the area. That church, the St. Ananoub and St. Anthony Coptic Orthodox Church, recently received a $3.2 million loan from the TD Bank in order to expand.
Concerns from neighbors
The Virgin Mary and Saint John Coptic Church came before the Board of Adjustment for the first time in February of this year. But the last three meetings have resulted in three-hour sessions, dealing with various aspects and objections. The church was seeking relief from zoning regulations that restricted the height of the building and required larger setbacks than proposed in the plans.
The church asked for variances that would allow the institution to build on a vacant lot next to the existing structure. While the block is largely occupied with banks, a local business, and a few residential houses, a condo development situated on the other side of the lot where the addition would be built would see the most negative impact. There were protests from nearly every resident living there.
Charles Rinaldi, the attorney representing the condo association, said concerns included kids gathering outside the church on the sidewalk, trash left out in the lot, and lack of parking to accommodate the congregation.
Objectors also questioned the increased number of parishioners the expanded church would draw, trash generated by a proposed two-meals-a-day for kids program, and the hours of services.
The four-floor addition, Rinaldi said, is just too large for the site, claiming that it affects light and air to the neighborhood.
During the many hours of hearings, Father Bishoy Malak Khalil, pastor of the church, said he knew when the congregation moved in that the church would need to be expanded. He said at the time that the population of the church and its need for increased space has required the church to expand. Khalil said the Coptic Christian community over the last few years has increased significantly.
The application was revised several times to accommodate the needs of the city planner and the neighbors.
Since the site has been used for church purposes prior to the latest use, it already has certain protections under the law. According to Attorney William J. Finnerty, who is representing the church, there is no property in Bayonne in a R2 zone that suits this church’s needs elsewhere in the city that would still meet the requirements of zoning for the 30-foot set backs that are required.
Finnerty said these setbacks are out of date with current uses anyway.
Tried to smooth over differences with neighbors
Church officials said that before they applied for the zoning board for approvals, a meeting was held last January inviting all of the neighbors to hear their concerns, but only two neighbors showed up.
While some setbacks could not be met, the church agreed to increase the setback on the side of the building nearest the condo development from the legally allowed three feet to seven feet, saying that the real problem is that the condo itself is built on the property line with no setbacks at all.
“We’re not dealing with just any applicant. This applicant is really made up of people,” said Finnerty. “Hundreds of people who have come to this county – many as immigrants from Egypt – trying to escape persecution and unfair treatment in Egypt simply because of what they believe in. They’ve come to Bayonne to raise their families and practice their religion in peace. They want to build this extension to give themselves a chance and a chance for their children to worship God in a way they love and pray in a language they can understand, a place to read, socialize, and practice their activities under the spiritual guidance of a priest such as Father Bishoy.”
The church designers modified the plans in conjunction with city planners to make it more acceptable to the board, Finnerty said.
While the church provides no on-site parking as required by the zoning, Finnerty said there is ample parking in nearby public lots, and surveys done by the church show that most people either walk or take public transportation to the church.
About 350 people come to the regular services on Saturday and Sunday mornings, with smaller meetings on Wednesday and Friday nights.
Board of Adjustment members voted to approve the expansion, noting that many of the proposed changes would deal with some of the problems the condo residents are complaining about. Members also said that the church made changes recommended by the city.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.