JACKSON – An ordinance that will provide regulations concerning houses of worship dominated a heated Township Council meeting. It will have its second reading during the meeting on April 13. Twenty days after that, it becomes law.
The ordinance that was introduced during the meeting – and which did not appear on the agenda – drew a number of residents to the podium to express either concerns about the measure or thanks to Mayor Michael Reina and the members of council.
Council President Martin Flemming noted during a dialogue exchange that the ordinance was a result of a settlement agreement on the federal level.
While numerous members of the township’s Orthodox Jewish community came out to voice their support of the ordinance, residents Jennifer Cusanelli and Hope Drew had questions about what the ordinance would actually involve.
Township Attorney Gregory McGuckin responded to many of the questions posed by the two women during the lengthy session.
For years the Township Council has had residents come before the dais to express concerns and complaints regarding homes in residentially zoned areas that were being used as houses of worship or “prayer homes” that were causing traffic and parking problems within those neighborhoods.
According to McGuckin and officials, this would regulate such uses but Drew and Cusanelli said putting houses of worship of any faith, in the middle of neighborhoods, is a disruptive practice and wasn’t a practical idea.
Ordinance 14-23 entitled, “Churches and Places of Worship” shall be repealed and replaced by Churches and Houses of Worship. Cusanelli asked McGuckin what the definition of a house of worship was during the meeting. That subject has been brought up and debated before.
“It is part of our legal settlement to allow for places of worship with standards in all the different zoning areas that we have in town,” Flemming responded.
“Can someone please give me the definition of what is a house of worship?” Cusanelli asked.
According to the new ordinance, “Houses of Worship, as defined in this chapter, shall be permitted as conditional uses in the following zoning districts: R1, R2, R3, R5, R9, R15, R20, R30, RG2, RG3, PM URD, MF, MUNC, HC and NC.
It added, “the following uses shall be considered accessory to Houses of Worship: Social (Banquet) Hall: a function hall is a special purpose room, or a building, used for hosting events related and ancillary to the practice of religion.
“Mikvah: a religious bathing facility used for the purpose of ritual immersion. A mikvah may be an accessory use to a house of worship or religious facility or may be a principal use in a freestanding building,” the ordinance states.
It also states that a Parsonage is a house or dwelling unit provided by a church, synagogue, temple, mosque or other such facility or congregation thereof as a residence for its clergy. Residency in a parsonage shall be limited to the group of religious officials (such as priests, ministers, and rabbis) specially prepared and authorized to lead religious services, their immediate family (parents, spouse, and children) and housekeeping staff, if any.
McGuckin noted that building standards were included within the ordinance. Bulk standards and design criteria for Houses of Worship located in the R9 or R15 district must have the primary frontage on a local road or a road of a higher order, as defined by the Residential Site Improvement Standards. Houses of worship shall not be located mid-block and shall be situated on a corner lot.
The required minimum area of the lot or tract is the minimum lot area for the zoning district or 20,000 square feet, whichever is greater, and the maximum building height of any principal structure shall not exceed 35′. Bulk Standards include a minimum lot width of 80’ or the requirement of the zone, whichever is greater
The minimum lot depth is 120’ or the requirement of the zone, whichever is greater while the minimum front yard is 30’, minimum side yard (each) is 10’with a minimum rear yard being set at 30’. Maximum building coverage: 35% of the gross lot area and the maximum lot coverage is 70% of the gross lot area.
Cusanelli asked about the parking regulations which according to the ordinance “shall be permitted in the front yard provided parking is set back 15’ from the public street right-of-way. Parking located within a front yard shall be screened from the adjacent right-of-way with a hedgerow or closely grouped cluster of plantings that shall be maintained at a height of no less than 20” and no greater 30”. In no event shall screening interfere with sight triangles.”
A decorative, solid six-foot fence and and/or natural vegetative buffer of a minimum width of 5’shall be provided along all parking, circulation drives and structures adjacent to a residential use or zone.
Several residents said they felt this ordinance moved the township forward and set a different tone from a prior meeting years ago where an ordinance was introduced to regulate a religious device called Eruv and to limit areas where synagogues could be built.
“It seems very evident to me that certain people knew exactly what was going on with this ordinance. I don’t care what you worship or where you pray. When you become a hinderance on a development and the people who live around you, there comes a time when we have to say we have respect for our neighbors. You guys have essentially given away the town,” Cusanelli said.
“There are many houses of worship in this town that have not had site approval, site plans in fact here’s one that has been advertised 146 New Prospect Road which still does not have site approval. What exactly makes this a house of worship?” Cusanelli asked.
McGuckin said he wasn’t familiar with that particular property.
“How long can a house of worship operate before it receives site approval?” Cusanelli asked. “Are these houses of worship going to be approved because of a settlement that was settled without going through the court and is putting the rest of this town in jeopardy?”
Drew said she was looking for a compromise. “That is all we’ve ever asked for. Regulate it, let’s live together but make it for everyone to still live there. Compromise, common sense – a house of worship shouldn’t be in a residential neighborhood. It should be on a main road.”
Resident Raymond Cattonar also has strong feelings about the ordinance. He told The Jackson Times the Council “kept it hidden from the general public. Ordinance 14-23 allows houses of worship throughout the Township and will be tax exempt which could cost Jackson taxpayers millions of dollars in lost tax revenue.”
Cattonar said the ordinance would also “add commercial parking lots and commercial buildings in any residential neighborhoods at the end of the blocks with no limitation to how many can be built. Homes on corners can be knocked down or additions can be added and the adjoining lot homes can be destroyed and made a commercial parking lot.”
He urged residents to attend the April 13 Council meeting where Council members will vote on the ordinance following a public hearing. “There has to be a better solution that represents all Jackson residents. Come voice your opinion.”