Faith Bible Church
SBL: 15.16-2-9, 10, 50, 53, 54
Discussion Site Plan & Special Use Permit
Location: 3500 Mohegan Avenue
Contact: Site Design Consultants
Description: Proposed additions & renovation to existing one-story church building and associated parking.
Planning Board, 4-9-2018
Mr. Riina advised the board that some demolition has been done and the parking area expanded by about 1/3. Construction is delayed while the church continues raises funds. The board approved the first 1-year extension.
With the project still on hold due to ongoing litigation, the applicant advised the board that the church wanted to begin work on site improvements even before a building permit was issued. It can’t, however, because one of the conditions of the wetlands permit bars any site work until a building permit is issued. The church wants to begin making improvements to the intersection, add parking and install the sewer connection and other drainage improvements.
On the legal situation, it was not clear to the observer whether the Appellate Division had ruled on the lawsuit, and if so, whether the losing side was appealing the decision to the Court of Appeals. However, independent of the lawsuit, the board’s attorney explained to the applicant that a lawsuit could be filed against the commencement of the infrastructure work while the initial lawsuit was still before the court. The applicant said he was aware of the risk but was prepared to “roll the dice.”
With that understanding, the board voted to amend the site plan approval to remove the building permit condition.
Planning Board, 4-3-2017
The board reapproved the site plan. Oral arguments at the appellate level are expected in mid April. After the appeal is decided, the applicant will need to raise money for the project. Mr. Tegeder said that a “hard look SEQRA letter” was needed, and one will be added as a condition of the reapproval. The board also acknowledged a letter from Mr. Bray (the person who filed the lawsuit) but did not acknowledge its contents.
The board approved a separate wetlands permit, as a subset of the original permit, that allows for the demolition of the vacant building before a building permit is issued.
The applicant advised the board that although the state Supreme Court upheld the Planning Board’s approval, that decision is currently on appeal; all briefs have been submitted and the applicant anticipates that it could take 8 months before oral arguments are heard. No stay has been issued.
While the appeal is pending, the applicant would like to demolish an existing yellow building on the site that is uninsurable and also begin some site work. However, a condition in the wetlands permit says that no construction can take place until a building permit is issued but the applicant does not want to prepare the plans needed to get the building permit until the lawsuit is settled.
After some discussion and advice from the board’s attorney and Bruce Barber, the board agreed that demolishing the building did not violate the condition of the wetlands permit, that the demolition was needed for safety reasons and that it could proceed. However, the board cautioned the applicant about being careful if he wanted to go ahead with any site work. The applicant stated that the two trees that had been removed had fallen.
Mr. Capellini explained that the site plan has been signed but that a building permit has not been issued yet because of a delay in completing the construction drawings. The board approved a second 1-year extension.
As the project’s site plan has not yet been signed, the Building Department wanted the board’s approval before issuing a demolition permit for the “original” church building that is nested in the larger building. The applicant said he was a few weeks away from getting the plan signed and is currently reviewing a punch list of items prepared by the Planning Department. The demolition permit will prohibit any earth moving or disturbance to any other portion o the site.
The board reviewed a supplemental landscaping plan. The two changes were:
1. landscaping along the southern boundary of the site, abutting the adjacent property owner
2. planting 11 red maples as an alternative to the originally proposed use of herbicides to remove phragmities. Mr. Riina explained that when the phragmities plan was reviewed by the DEC, the agency asked the applicant to consider an alternative invasive removal plan as the herbicide plan had a low success rate. Because phragmities do not like shade, the red maples, once grown, will crowd out the invasives. In the interim, the plants will be manually removed. Seven trees will be planted on the lake side of Mohegan Avenue and four along the perimeter of the parking lot.
With DEC approval still pending, the board approved a one year extension of the site plan approval. Mr. Capellini said he hoped the approval would be forthcoming in a week or so. A memo from the Conservation Board recommending some changes in the landscape plan will be forwarded to the applicant’s engineer.
Without any discussion, the board approved the special permit, wetlands permit, stormwater permit and tree removal permit for the building of the new church.
Prior to the vote, Mr. Riina showed the board a site plan for the Hudson Valley Credit Union indicating where the 22 parking spaces for the church will be located. The site plan will be appended to the bank’s original site plan map as well as the license agreement between the bank and the church.
The board reviewed a draft approval resolution with Mr. Capellini. Based on the discussion, it was agreed that the language in certain sections should be clarified.
Ownership issue. For a portion of the site (possibly a parking area), title will be conveyed to the church but the original owner with retain the easement.
Flood plain: The prohibition against any future development in the flood plain will be changed to say “no buildings” in order to allow stormwater related infrastructure improvements to be made.
Location of building. Mr. Tegeder suggested that because the new church will no longer be built around the existing structure and the architect has stated that this will give him more design flexibility, the architect might consider some changes in the building’s height, width and position, some of which may “improve the situation a little bit.” The issue was left open, and the applicant will return to ABACA before coming back to the Planning Board. Mr. Capellini noted that ABACA approval of the architectural plans is not required.
Off site parking: In response to comments from Mr. Savoca, it was agreed that the final site plan will include a drawing that will indicate, possibly in general terms, where on the bank site the required 22 off site parking spaces will be. The location will also be noted on the license agreement. There was some discussion of the off site parking being used only for Sundays, and the pastor noted that other than Sundays, there were no other days or holidays that required additional parking.; Christmas is always celebrated on a Sunday.
Landscape plan. The Conservation Board will be added to the list of advisory boards who will review the plan.
Sewer connection: The board felt that because both the record and minutes already discussed the location of the proposed sewer line, the approval resolution did not have to address this issue.
In addition to the above changes, Mr. Tegeder said his office had some additional minor tweaking to do before ta revised version was drafted.
Stating that the Planning Board was not accountable to the people, Evan Bray asked the Town Board to intervene with the Planning Board and request the Planning Board to extend the period for written comments to 20 days, instead of the 10 day period set by the board. Repeating comments he made at the Planning Board public hearing, he said there were many unresolved issues. In response, Supervisor Grace explained that a ‘Chinese wall” existed between the boards and that the Town Board cannot influence the decision making process of either the Planning Board or the Zoning Board and Councilman Bianco added that the Planning Board had to be very careful when dealing with religious institutions. Two additional Mohegan Lake residents spoke in opposition to the expansion of the church and the need to protect the character of the Mohegan Lake community.
Evan Bray raised a series of questions in opposition to what he said was the size of the proposed new church, not the expansion, per se, including the applicant’s failure to fully comply with the public notification requirements, the adequacy of the off- site parking at the credit union site, the proposed location of the sewer line, and the safety of erecting the new church while the existing building was still in use. In each case, a member of the Planning Board or a member of the church’s development team addressed the issue. When Mr. Bray’s comments dealt with ZBA related issues, he was reminded that the variance issues had been resolved and that pending a judicial overturn of the ZBA decision, the Planning Board had no choice but to accept a site plan based on the variances.
At one point, Mr. Flynn noted that the board was there to listen to comments but not to debate or argue over points and Mr. Fon said that the board’s goal was to maintain the public trust and go “the extra mile” for both the applicant and the public when it review the plans, which he noted, have changed over time.
The church’s pastor advised the board that whatever its ultimate decision was on the site plan, the church had no intention of suing.
Tom Powers of the credit union explained that the 60 space parking lot is shared by both Celestial and the credit union and that, acting as good neighbors, it really didn’t make any difference on whose space either St. Mary’s Church, which uses the site on Saturday and Sunday, or Faith Bible parked.
Members of the church’s development team reviewed various aspects of the plan emphasizing how the plan would provide both traffic and environmental benefits and how, as required under the special permit conditions of the zoning code, the plan is compatible with a residential neighborhood. (Prior to 2006, houses of worship were permitted “as of right” in residential neighborhoods. In response to a question from the board as to why the change was made, Mr. Capellini speculated that the change may have been a result of the contentious discussions surrounding a proposed temple on Mohansic Ave.)
Evan Bray raised two legal issues: he questioned the accuracy of the language used in the public notice advertising for the adjourned hearing and, of more significance, whether the zoning code required the owners of the properties abutting the Hudson Valley Bank constituted “interested parties’ to the application and also be notified of the hearing. It was his contention that the bank’s lease agreement with the church to allow parking on its site on Sundays made the bank’s property an integral part of the application and therefore properties abutting the bank also had to be notified of the hearing.
In response to the first issue, it was explained that the notice had used the language from the original hearing and might have to be changed to reflect changes in the plan that had been made since the original 2009 application. A resolution of the second issue about which property owners had to be notified was less clear and the board’s attorney said she was not prepared to render an opinion during the meeting. (Mr. Capellini argued that the lease arrangement did not alter who had to be notified.) Mr. Fon said it was important that this issue be addressed and that the board proceed properly.
Mr. Bray then proceeded to question various aspects of the plan, advising the board that he had about three hours worth of comments which he said hadn’t been addressed before. He questioned whether the traffic study had included the impact of the shuttle bus from the bank’s parking lot and also noted that the plan’s site coverage slightly exceeded the 25% limit because retaining walls should be included in the calculation. When his subsequent comments began to touch on other site plan issues, the board asked him to limit his comments to “anything new” and reminded him that the hearing was not an appropriate venue to rehash what had already been decided by the Zoning Board. Messrs. Fon and Flynn advised him that the Zoning Board’s actions granting the latest round of variances created a “new norm” for the site that the Planning Board was obligated, by law, to accept.
(Mr. Bray’s Article 78 lawsuit challenging the ZBA’s decision is pending.)
When it became clear that the board would be adjourning the hearing to allow the attorney time to review the notice requirement issue, Mr. Bray decided to postpone the remainder of his comments.
The only other speaker was the church’s pastor who expressed frustration at the process as well as what he said were the lies and misinformation about the project.
The applicant is still working with ABACA and the Conservation Board on architectural issues, and a lighting and landscape plan.
The board went into a closed executive session, and when it returned, it voted to adjourn the hearing.
Mr. Riina answered a few questions about the expanded/updated EAF that had been submitted explaining that the document “tightened up” a few issues, addressed site plan changes based on the latest variances, and brought together several reports into one document. In response to Ms. Kutter’s question about the location of the proposed sewer line and its proximity to a wetland, Mr. Riina explained that the pipe would not disturb the wetlands and that there was no other nearby location for the pipe.
The Board also acknowledged a submission it had received hat day from Evan Bray and asked the Board’s attorney to prepare a response to the document for the March 10 hearing. On behalf of the applicant, Mr. Capellini said that the applicant would also respond to the document.
Mr. Fon advised Mr. Riina that at the March 10 public hearing, the applicant should present a time line showing the initial plan (number of parking spaces, square footage, etc.) and how it was modified over time and when in response to the variances.
Mr. Capellini advised the Board that the required posted public notice signs at the site have either been removed or have been buried in the snow. Mr. Fon suggested that the applicant post new signs as required by law.
The Board noted that an Article 78 had been filed challenging the ZBA’s granting of several variances and the issue before the Board was how or whether it could/should proceed with its approval of the site plan pending the outcome of the lawsuit. After the Board’s attorney had a brief private discussion with Al Capellini, the church’s attorney, the church decided to proceed with the Planning Board review, acknowledging that by doing so it was proceeding at its own risk.
There was no discussion of the Article 78 lawsuit.
The ZBA variances included new calculations of front and side yard distances from the center of the road, allowing 25 off site parking spaces 908 feet from the church where the zoning code limits such parking to 500 feet from the site, and also considering the church a residential use for the purpose of meeting parking requirements in front yards.
Because so many months have elapsed since the May, 2013 public hearing was adjourned, the Planning Department will advertise a continuation of the hearing for the March 10 meeting (Mr. Capellini explained that he would not be available for the Board’s regular February meeting.) The applicant will not be required to send notification letters to abutting property owners. (Mr. Capellini told the Board that the required four previous mailings had cost the church between $800-$900.) However, the applicant will return to the Board for a February work session to clear up any open issues prior to the reconvened public hearing.
The Board went into closed seccsion to discuss Faith Bible Church
The Board went into closed seccsion to discuss Faith Bible Church
The Board conducted a lengthy and often acrimonious hearing on the plan to replace the existing church with a new larger building. At times, Planning Board members had to remind both parties to remain civil and Mr. Fon advised people in the audience (who appeared to be both for and against the plan) that the Board wanted to listen to everyone and that it was interested in the facts. In their presentations, both sides said that they were presenting the “truth.”
The plan, which dates back to 2009, calls for the new church to be built on the existing footprint with a sanctuary seating capacity (on the second floor) of 344 seats and classrooms, a stage area and a kitchen on the first floor.
In general, area residents, including Evan Bray who lives next door to the church, oppose the plan as being too large and out of character with the neighborhood. One resident referring to a petition in opposition to the plan signed by 100% of area residents, pleaded with the Board to “please consider our opinion.” Citing previous Planning Board documents dating back to 1963 and provisions of the zoning ordinance, Mr. Bray stated that the conversion of single family residences for church use was illegal and that the town should not now approve an enlargement of an illegal use.
Much of the back and forth discussion focused on the history of the site and conflicting or unclear interpretations of different sections of the zoning ordinance which, adding to the confusion, have changed over time. These issues involved how to calculate front and side yard setbacks, conflicting sections of the zoning ordinance that governed “houses of worship” and “religious institutions,” whether a house of worship was allowed, as of right, in a residential zone and if so, what set back requirements were applicable. It appeared that the building inspector and/or the ZBA would have to weigh in on the interpretations and that earlier variances might have to be modified based on an updated review of the zoning ordinance. (The church currently has an application before the ZBA regarding a variance for its off site parking plan.) Mr. Bray also expressed concern that if the first and second floor were used simultaneously, the combined usage could exceed 700 people, a figure disputed by the church’s pastor.
In support of the project, the applicant noted that the planned stormwater improvements and change from septic to sewer would be an environmental plus for Lake Mohegan.
In the 1960s, the site was the home of the Lakeland Jewish Center. At some point in time, it ceased being used as a house of worship and a caretaker lived on a house on the property. The Faith Bible Church leased the property beginning in 1994. Over the years, its congregation has grown and according to the church pastor, Sunday attendance averages about 170 adults and children, use that is more intense than the previous, discontinued Jewish Center use.
Mr. Flynn noted that for the Planning Board, the issue wasn’t simply what a percentage of the area residents wanted. The Board’s decisions, he noted, could not be based on community sentiment, but had to follow New York State law.
The public hearing was adjourned.
The Board postponed taking any action pending an interpretation of the zoning ordinance dealing with non conforming uses that was raised by resident Evan Bray; specifically, whether special permits were needed for the residential buildings that had previously been converted to church use. Mr. Capellini argued that the current usage was in full compliance with the zoning ordinance as historically the town has allowed church uses of residential structures.
Parking: The applicant has gotten permission to use 25 spaces at the nearby Learning Center and will supply the Board with a formal agreement. It was not clear whether the distance requirement in the Town Code about off- site parking referred to the distance from the actual building or from the property line.
Traffic: Some modifications were made in the site plan as previously discussed. The Town’s traffic consultant has reviewed the applicant’s traffic report and there did not appear to be any issues.
Stating that he wanted to avoid an 11th hour call to save a possibly historic structure, Chairman Fon noted that there was an “old” building on the site that was going to be demolished and asked if there was anything worth saving in the building. Mr. Tegeder said he would refer the matter to the Landmarks Committee.
The Board reviewed possible changes in the configuration of the intersection of Sagamore and Mohegan Avenues and the location of a crosswalk connecting the parking lot and the church.The Town is still waiting for a report from its traffic consultant who is analyzing the applicant’s traffic study. If the report is received in time, the Board will review it with the applicant at the March 11 meeting.
The Board also discussed the adequacy of the applicant’s parking plan which doesn’t conform to Town Code and the suitability of using “stacking” for 23 spaces. While Mr. Kincart said he preferred not to see stacking for safety reasons , the applicant’s attorney, Al Capellini, stated that stacking was actually a safer alternative than parking along the street. Citing examples of other houses of worship elsewhere in Yorktown, everyone appeared to agree that homeowners living near these uses got used to the occasional inconvenience of the additional traffic and street parking.
The church’s pastor advised the Board that he was exploring the possibility of 15 additional off site parking spaces at the neighboring day care center that is not in use on Sundays. A shuttle bus would bring early church goers to and from the site. Planning Director Tegeder asked the applicant’s engineer to confirm the distance from the day care lot to the church as Town Code has provisions for off site parking within 500 feet of an applicant’s site.The church also makes use of six additional spaces across Mohegan Ave. at the lakefront.
The pastor also took issue with some of the criticisms of the church’s application contained in a letter from nearby resident Evan Bray. The pastor said that contrary to statements made by Mr. Bray, the expansion of the church will not put added stress on the septic system as the church plans to tie in to the existing sewer llne on Route 6. He also said the church as absolutely no intention of establishing a 172 student school.
Traffic consultant Philip Grealy showed the Board a revised site plan that “tightens” the intersection of Mohegan and Sagamore Avenues, converting it more to a safer “T” intersection. He also recommended that “all way” stop signs to installed on both roads.
The revised plan also added86 stacked (valet) parking spaces so that the plan meets the Town Code requirement of 252 spaces for the anticipated 344 seat capacity.He said that additional off street parking would be available for heavily attended events but did not explain where that would be. The church’s pastor explained that attendance varied, even at holiday times, and that typically, not all 344 seats were used as families liked to sit together and people in general didn’t want to sit on top of one another.
Because the church is located in the area covered by the 2004 Sustainable Development Study, the traffic report will be referred to the Town’s traffic consultant, Jacobs Engineering for review. The applicant will pay the $4200 cost of the review.
In response to comments from the Fire Department, the applicant informed the board that the access points to the site had been modified to provide more defined entrance and exit points and to eliminate what was now considered a “haphazard” arrangement. There will also be intersection improvements and better controls at the Mohegan/Sagamore intersection by creating more of a “T” type intersection.
The board’s overriding concern with the site plan was the adequacy of the on-site parking and whether there were sufficient spaces to accommodate the planned expansion of the building. The current plan provides for 63 spaces where 86 would be required by code. While the goal was to avoid off site parking, Al Capellini, attorney for the church, reminded the board that historically the town has been forgiving of places of worship when it came to street parking. Planning Director John Tegeder suggested that while there might be adequate parking now to accommodate the approximate 150-180 people that typically attend a service, the board might want to require the applicant to submit a parking management plan in the event membership grew and the “typical” capacity exceeded 80% of the proposed 344 seating capacity. The applicant agreed that a plan was a good idea, acknowledging that the current parking arrangement was safe but not perfect and that “down the line” something would have to be done. The church does use parking attendants to help “guide” the cars and, during more heavily attended holiday services uses valet parking.
Also, because the property, located off Route 6, is part of the Sustainable Development Study, Mr. Tegeder advised the board that the application will be referred to the town’s traffic consultant, Jacobs, Edwards and Kelsey, for review. The applicant indicated that it would accept the findings of the town’s traffic consultant and would not hire its own consultant. (See Costo, Town Board, 1/24/2012 for discussion on traffic consultant. )
While an Article 78 lawsuit has been filed by local resident Evan Bray challenging the Zoning Board’s decision to grant the church two variances, Karen Wagner, the board’s attorney, advised the board that the lawsuit had no bearing on the Planning Board’s review of the site plan.