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Church Parcel in Lower Subdivided Despite Neighbors’ Opposition

Christopher South
Applicant’s engineer Vince Orlando describes a project to the Lower Township Planning Board to redevelop a large parcel that is part of the First Assembly of God Church on Seashore Road.

By Christopher South

VILLAS – Despite a number of objections from neighbors, the Lower Township Planning Board on Thursday, Jan. 18, approved a subdivision to create nine lots out of the First Assembly of God Church property on Seashore Road.

Paul Burgin Builders Inc. is seeking to put up eight new homes on lots created for that purpose using land being purchased from the church, located at 1068 Seashore Road in the Cold Spring section of the township.

The church, according to one member of the congregation, intends to sell the land to the developer and use the proceeds to finance church activities. The development will see eight houses on one-acre lots, leaving 4.71 acres for the existing church building.

The developer was seeking a variance for lot area for the church. According to Vince Orlando, engineer for the applicant, churches are required to have 5 acres of land, but the subdivision, as requested, would result in the church’s having 0.29 acre less than required.

“I don’t know why 5 acres is required for a church,” Orlando said.

Jennifer Charsty, a neighbor of the church property who opposed the subdivision, shows the Planning Board maps and images of flooding in the area. Photo Credit: Christopher South

The application was first brought to the Planning Board in October 2023, with a plan to have the entrance to the new development linked to San Fernando Road. After hearing objections from San Fernando Road residents who were concerned about increased traffic flow, the project was redesigned to have the entrance come off Seashore Road.

That entrance will lead into a cul-de-sac, and only the exiting parsonage will have access to San Fernando Road. The church and the new residences will be accessed off Seashore Road.

Besides the request for a major subdivision, the developer was requesting what Orlando called “minor” variances. One of the lots needed 112 feet of frontage, and a variance was sought to allow 103 feet. A hardship variance was sought for the creation of the nine newly described lots, and a hardship variance for lot depth, frontage and width.

The audience included a good number of objectors and a few supporters of the plan to subdivide the church property for new homes. Photo Credit: Christopher South

The Planning Board heard comments from the public about the plan, pro and con, for about an hour.

Richard McKeown, who has been a neighbor of the church property for 30 years, said he was promised by the previous pastor that the land would never be sold or developed. He said the current pastor, Leo Dodd, who testified at the meeting, did not feel he had to honor an agreement he didn’t make.

Taylor Lane resident Ricky Catanoso told the board she thought the original design looked “pretty good,” but she now had concerns about the entrance to the development coming off Seashore Road. She said the intersection would need a traffic light in the summer, and that access via San Fernando Road was a better plan.

The traffic, she said, would come from multiple single-family homes, not businesses. Her husband, William Catanoso, echoed her remarks about the traffic light and said there would be a loss of serenity caused by the development.

“For 25 years it’s just been us and the coyotes,” he said.

Pastor Leo Dodd of the First Assembly of God Church tells the Planning Board about the church’s attempts to have its land declared open space or, alternately, to have it farmed. Photo Credit: Christopher South

Cape Avenue resident Tony Marino said he believed the properties would be rented via the social media marketplace, such as Airbnb, and visitors would bring four to five cars per house. Charity Clark, the real estate broker handling the property transaction, said the people investing in these homes would likely not rent them.

Linda Waldie of San Fernando Road did not like the inclusion in the plan of drainage ditches, which she said would become breeding grounds for mosquitoes. She mentioned other locations in the vicinity where water pools after rain.

Waldie also said the development would destroy habitat for birds, saying that she has seen sandhill cranes at the end of San Fernando, and that they would leave and never be seen again. She said the township rejected an application for Open Space funding; however, the applicant’s attorney, John Amenhauser, produced a letter from the Cape May County Open Space program that denied the application. She suggested that if the application was rejected the developer could buy the property and preserve it.

Another San Fernando Road resident, Jennifer Charsty, echoed concerns about endangered species and flooding, and cited the presence of wetlands. She further cited the danger of overburdening the water supply, forcing existing neighbors to pay for new wells. Charsty added that she did not care to see more development, saying, “Every new home takes away from the attractiveness of the island.”

Opposition testimony was given by a number of others, including an 11-year-old, who said the development was unfair to kids and animals, the latter being unable to voice objections.

Supporters of the application included Dodd, the church’s pastor, who said the decision to sell the property to a developer was not made in haste. He mentioned the application to the Open Space program and said the church asked area farmers to buy the property; they said it was too small to farm, he said.

Dodd said that over a two-year period they talked to numerous people about what to do with the property and rejected the idea of building multifamily units. He said the church was also careful about who it engaged to develop the property.

“We are trying hard as a church to be a blessing to the community,” he said.

The Lower Township Planning Board voted 6-0 for the variances needed by the developer. Photo Credit: Christopher South

One of the church members, Lou Paradise, even tried a little flattery with the board, telling them they were a “good-looking board,” but on a more serious note he said he felt the application met the requirements of the law.

Amenhauser added that all of the development outlined in the application was permitted. Planning Board Solicitor Avery Teitler said the application was very nearly a “by right” application, which would have required no variances at all.

At the conclusion of the public comment period, Township Planner William Galestock told the board that a lot of the testimony was related to issues that were not in the board’s purview, such as concerns over wetlands, wildlife and the water supply, and the board could not consider these comments in making its decision.

Teitler said that some of these concerns were more appropriately heard by the county or the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The Planning Board voted 6-0 to approve the application.

Contact the author, Christopher South, at csouth@cmcherald.com or 609-886-8600, ext. 128.

Reporter

Christopher South is a reporter for the Cape May County Herald.

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