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Macedonian Orthodox Church v. Planning Bd. of Tp. of Randolph

Decided: January 13, 1994.


On appeal from Superior Court, Law Division, Morris County.

Petrella, Baime and Conley. The opinion of the court was delivered by Petrella, P.J.A.D.


[269 NJSuper Page 564] The Planning Board of the Township of Randolph (Planning Board) appeals from the judgment of the Law Division in a suit in lieu of prerogative writs setting aside the denial of a conditional use variance to the Macedonian Orthodox Church (Church). The Church sought approval to construct on its property an all-purpose building that was more than twice the size and in a different location from a proposed smaller, auditorium-type building, approved thirteen years earlier.

On appeal the Board argues: (1) it correctly evaluated the application under the township's conditional use ordinance; (2) plaintiff's status as a church is immaterial to review of its application; (3) its decision is supported by the record, is presumed correct, and is, neither arbitrary, unreasonable or capricious and should be sustained.

The Church owns certain property on the southeastern side of Center Grove Road in what's known as the RLD-3 single-family low density residential zone. In 1978, the Church was constructed under the 1978 conditional use approval. A rectory, driveways, and parking lots were completed in accordance with the approved site plan. Construction of the auditorium and the connecting hallway to the Church was never undertaken due to financial difficulty.

Many years later, the Church determined to construct an all-purpose building and additional parking on the site. The initial plans called for a 12,800 square-foot community hall that would seat 500 people. The building was to have a full basement and a small kitchen, as well. In contrast, the 1978 approval had permitted a 5,000 square-foot recreation hall, and the entire project was to be served by only fifty parking spaces. In addition, the hall was proposed to be located in a different spot on the site than that which was approved in 1978. As a result of the enlarged specifications, certain environmental constraints on the site became an issue.

There was some question as to whether a parking variance was needed and whether a "new" conditional use approval had to be obtained. At a February 11, 1991 work session, the Church's engineer acknowledged that the parking lot would probably be the major source of contention with regard to the new application. The Church submitted a variance application to the Randolph Township Board of Adjustment. It was determined that the parking variance could be eliminated because the Church could comply with the township's parking requirements without a variance. Hence, that application was abandoned and the Church

reduced the size of its proposed building to 11,200 square feet and met the parking requirement of at least 142 spaces. The proposed structure would comply with all the bulk requirements of the RLD-3 zone.

The proposed 11,200 square-foot community hall and 143 parking spaces was designed to accommodate the Church's 100 family congregation. The all-purpose building was to accommodate christenings, weddings, and various youth group activities, as well as special celebrations on New Year's, Easter, and Christmas, the Church's three biggest holidays. It was represented that no one but Church members would be able to utilize the community hall.

The relocation of the structure prompted concerns about whether the Church's DEP*fn1 permits for the previously approved plan were still viable. The Church contacted the DEPE and obtained "approval for grandfathering based upon its [1978] approved plan." A letter from the township's engineer explained that "so long as the original approval is not voided, it is exempt from the Wetlands Regulations even if the project undergoes a major redesign."*fn2 The Church's position was that there had been no substantial deviation from the 1978 site plan approval, which, for wetlands permit purposes, had been "perfected" by virtue of the construction of the Church structure.

Another topic of the hearings included various complaints from neighboring property owners about the Church's prior use of the site, specifically the debris, noise, altercations and trespassing which accompanied the social use of the Church site for picnics and other gatherings. The Church acknowledged that the facility

had not always been well maintained in the past. However, it sought to minimize those concerns by explaining that at present the Randolph Township facility is a "part-time Church," in that the congregation has another church facility in Passaic County that is in the process of being sold. Since the Randolph site is then to become the congregation's main facility, the Church reasoned it can be expected to take better care of the Randolph site. In addition, the noise factor was anticipated to be eliminated with the new building since social functions would be conducted indoors.

The Planning Board determined that since the Church's amendment to the prior conditional use approval entailed substantial changes, the new application would again have to meet the standards set forth in the conditional use ordinance. To that end, a significant portion of the public hearings was dedicated to consideration of whether the application would "substantially impair the present or future use ...

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