100-year-old parish granted zoning subdivision to keep church open

Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church faces financial hardships and needs to sell off some property

The Bayonne Zoning Board of Adjustment has granted a minor subdivision of property at Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church, which will allow the church to remain open.

The church parish is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2022. The parish, a term for the local community that supports the church, was founded before the church building itself was completed in 1924, with the structure turning 100 as well in just a few years.

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The church property encompasses 93-95 West 27th Street and 94-96 West 28th Street. The parish had applied to the board to subdivide 93-95 West 27th Street and change the lot lines in order to have the entire church annex on the church property at 94-96 West 28th Street.

As it stands, the property has two lots with four separate structures on them. There’s two separate two and a half story houses at 93 and 95 West 27th Street and half of the church annex on one lot, and the other half of the annex and the church itself on the other lot.

Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church sought to subdivide one lot so that the two homes on West 27th Street will have their own lots, and to shift the lot lines so that the church and the church annex are on their own lot. The subdivision would then allow the parish to sell one or both of the homes to help keep the doors open amid financial hardships.

In March of this year, the board heard a similar presentation from the parish. However, it denied the application due to the position of the new lot line behind the homes after the subdivision.

The denial was without prejudice, allowing the parish to refile months later. The application was again presented to the board by attorney Peter Cecinini at its Monday, October 17 meeting.

“This application is really an amendment to the parish’s prior application, which was denied earlier this year,” Cecinini said. “At the time, this board mentioned that the proposed subdivision lines for the property at 93 West 27th Street could be further back to be closer to conformity with the zone’s lot depth requirement.”

Cecinini underscored that since the initial rejection of the application, the lot line the board took issue with has been moved back. He also said the parish is flexible and willing to hear any other suggestions from the board.

Attorney Peter Cecinini on behalf of the parish presented the application to the Zoning Board.

Correcting existing zoning non-conformities

According to Cecinini, the application requested a number of variances for things that did not conform to current zoning regulations. However, he said that this is due to the pre-existing non-conformities present at the site, and even the surrounding neighborhood.

“The church inherited this mess, and now this is the opportunity to fix it,” Cecinini said. “From the 1920s through the 1980s, a 25 by 100 foot lot was conforming… Every single house on this block has a 25 foot width. So even though a conforming lot line is 30 feet, by granting the requested lot lines that are proposed, you’re much closer to conformity with what already exists on the block… So this application seeks to correct the currently non-conforming lots as much as possible, and the uses at the site. No single building is supposed to be split into two separate lots. And two separate houses, they’re not supposed to be on a single lot.”

Cecinini said there will be no physical site alterations to any of the properties. In addition, he highlighted the financial need behind the application.

“The church has financial issues after a century of being in operation,” Cecinini said. “If it can’t set this up, divide the houses, and sell at least one of them, they’re going to have to close… And if that happens, our city is going to have yet another boarded up church in the neighborhood. It’s a much better use to have a church in operation and healthy.”

Project planner Ed Kolling testified to the subdivision specifics. He said that the variances aim to correct some of the pre-existing non-conformities on the lots.

“This is an application which includes a minor subdivision,” Kolling said. “It triggers two different types of variances, a D3 variance which is for the conditional use variance asking for variances from some of those conditions, which include the minimum lot area, setback from the property line and landscape buffer. There’s also several C variances for the homes that front onto 28th Street, including lot area, front lot frontage and width, depth, rear yard setbacks, and maximum lot coverage.”

He continued: “It sounds like a lot, but the pre-existing conditions that are here really explain why they are what they are. There’s no change to the location of these buildings, to the size of the buildings, to the intensity of the use. They’re really triggered by trying to correct a couple of situations that have evolved over the years.”

Project planner Ed Kolling described the now-approved subdivision and lot line shift in detail.

Church is ‘inherently beneficial’ to community

According to Kolling, non-conforming lots also exist in the surrounding neighborhood. 95 West 27th Street will be 26 feet wide and 77.5 feet deep and the other single family will be 24 feet wide by 87.5 feet deep, compared to the other lots on the street that are 25 feet wide by 100 feet deep, which do not match current zoning regulations for lot size.

The reason for the difference in lot size, as well as other non-conformities requiring variances, is the location of the church annex in relation to the homes. While that was a consideration of the board for their decision on the previous application, the lot lines have been pushed further back toward the church annex to allow for deeper lots for the homes.

Chairman Clifford Adams asked if the existing non-conformities would remain in place if the application was denied, to which Kolling confirmed that would be the case. Adams then asked about the testimony on the parish’s financial state, noting this was similar to when a parish sells its school to keep the church open.

Kolling underscored that the difference here was that the house will likely remain a house. He said: “When a parish sells their school and it’s being put to a different use, it may end up being for a non-conforming use, maybe a multi-family or something like that. But in this case, the properties that are being subdivided off are in fact principal permitted structures, principal permitted uses. So they will be sold off and occupied by people as residential buildings.”

Vice Chairman Nicholas DiLullo asked about the building next to the church at 98 West 28th Street, which Kolling confirmed was the home of the priest that is owned by the church but on a separate lot.

Parish Council President Stephen Wasilewski said the church needed the subdivision to sell property to stay afloat financially.

Subdivision is only way out of ‘financial ruins’

Stephen Wasilewski, Parish Council President of Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church, restated much of Kolling’s testimony regarding the subdivision.

“Nothing is really changing except for lot lines,” Wasilewski said. “It was a mess that was created years ago. These houses were built in the 1920s.”

According to Wasilewski, the subdivision would allow the sale of one of the homes on the property.

Wasilewski said the church needs the money to stay open as it rings in its 100-year anniversary.

“We’re in financial ruins basically right now,” Wasilewski said. “We owe our diocese money. We probably have two months of money left. So I mean we will be boarding up a church that’s been around for 100 years. And we’re celebrating the 100th year next week, with the incorporation of December 22 of 1922 of when it was founded. We definitely don’t want that, a boarded up church.”

When asked by Adams that if the application was approved if both houses would be liquidated to fund the parish, to which Wasilewski said the parish would probably only sell the single-family home at 93 West 27th Street. DiLullo asked what the other house is used for, and Wasilewski clarified that church parishioners such as the custodian live there.

Parish Council Secretary Margaret Kovach noted that high property taxes spurred the need to sell one of the residential properties.

If application is denied, then church closes its doors

Parish Council Secretary Margaret Kovach also testified that parish was in a tough spot financially. A member of the parish for over 60 years, she said the issue stemmed from property taxes.

“We can’t afford to support the buildings on 27th Street,” Kovach said. “The way things are now, we’re required to pay property taxes on those houses. We’ve used pretty much our last dollars in funding of this application process… We don’t want to see it go into disrepair. We don’t want to lose the parish.”

Kovach echoed Kolling and Wasilewski that the application will only change the lot lines.

“We really only need to consider separating the properties,” Kovach said. “We’re not changing it… We would only look to draw lines a little differently that make a lot more sense for all of us… If we can’t change those lines… we have no other option.”

Russell Wyskanycz, the Parish Council Financial Secretary, testified further the dire financial situation Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church finds itself in.

“Due to different demographic changes, the financial base and assets of the church have dwindled,” Wyskanycz said. “We’ve been running significant deficits over the last eight to 10 years. We came up with this proposal to subdivide the property to sell that property. Based on the more recent projections that I’ve made, personally I think that, if based on current conditions, the sale of that house would probably allow the church financially to exist for another eight to 10 years.”

Very Reverend Wilfred Royer said part of the problem financially is a demographic shift to a congregation that donates less money.

Parishioners ask for application approval

Very Reverend Wilfred Royer, Rector at Saint Peter and Paul’s Church and priest there for over nine years, also asked the board for approval of the application, speaking on his personal experience as a faith leader.

“The people who continue to donate the most to the parish are its oldest members,” Royer said. “But they have either passed away or become homebound, or move to another state like Florida. New people joining the church are younger than that, and don’t contribute as much. So if we had the same parishioner contributions now as we did when I first came here, we would be financially solvent.”

Royer went over what would happen if the church were to become financially insolvent, noting that the diocese only closes churches as a last resort.

“What happens is that, if the church cannot pay its bills, it will lose its resident priest,” Royer said. “When it loses a resident priest, the diocese will try to send some supply priests. Well in our diocese, they are in very short supply… It would mean that they could not guarantee a priest for services every Sunday. When people cannot count on service being every Sunday, they disperse and it becomes a downward spiral. And eventually they close the church. So your decision has a real impact on us.”

According to Royer, the sale of the single-family home at 93 West 27th Street would keep the church open for possibly more than another decade.

“For 100 years, this church has contributed to the cultural, moral, and spiritual life in this city,” Royer said. “Our church itself is unique. No other building in the city is like it. It’s unique in its architecture. We contribute to the diversity of the city. The Eastern Orthodox faith nationally is about two percent of the population. So again, we bring a cultural and spiritual tradition that adds to Bayonne’s diversity. You don’t want to lose it.”

Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church is located on West 28th Street in Bayonne. Photo courtesy of the church.

Board votes unanimously to allow subdivision

Cecinini then concluded the presentation: “As the planner testified, nobody in Bayonne is being hurt by this, nothing is physically changing at the site, and this allows the church that’s been around for 100 years and has contributed to our community for 100 years to keep in operation.”

The board then went into closed caucus to discuss things prior to the vote. Adams began by speaking in favor of the application.

“Inherently beneficial,” Adams said. “Those are two very, very, very important words that I consider when looking at the overall elements of this particular application. Based upon the testimony, if things remain the same, the church will be on financial downward spiral leading to the loss of something that’s inherently beneficial to the entire city of Bayonne. I think there’s a better alternative as it was brought up in testimony. Nothing from a space standpoint is really changing whatsoever. Preserving something that is inherently beneficial to the city of Bayonne is paramount to me, and I will be voting in favor of the application.”

DiLullo still took issue with the lot size for 95 West 27th Street, however, he was also in favor of the application, as were Secretary Louis Lombari, and Commissioners Joseph Pineiro, Susan Conty, and Arrigo De Ros.

“Originally, I turned down this application, but hearing testimony tonight, especially where the new regulations that say not allowed to have two buildings on one parcel of land, I believe that the applicant did the best they could to subdivide to the best of their ability,” De Ros said.

The board voted unanimously to approve the application, allowing the church to celebrate its 100th anniversary in peace on Sunday, October 23.

After the vote, Adams concluded: “Congratulations on your anniversary and good luck for many years to come.”

For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at disrael@hudsonreporter.com.

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