Covenant Christians win appeal

Congregation allowed to turn Brunswick Avenue warehouse into a house of worship

By: Lea Kahn
   The Covenant Christian Ministries has overcome the final hurdle in its quest to convert an abandoned warehouse at the corner of Brunswick Avenue and Pine Street into a house of worship.
   The 100-plus member congregation currently meets at the Lawrence Neighborhood Center on Eggerts Crossing Road.
   A three-judge panel of the Appellate Division of state Superior Court upheld the ruling by Mercer County state Superior Court Judge Judith Yaskin that sent the church’s use variance application back to the township Zoning Board of Adjustment in 1998.
   The Appellate Division rejected an appeal of decisions by two Superior Court judges – Judges Judith Yaskin and Linda Feinberg – filed by opponents of the church’s use variance request. The two Superior Court judges sent the application back to the zoning board, in two separate lawsuits filed by the objectors.
   The Zoning Board of Adjustment denied the Covenant Christian Ministries’ use variance application in 1997. The variance is required because a church was not permitted in the existing zone. The church group appealed the board’s denial in Mercer County state Superior Court, and Judge Feinberg sent the matter back for the two sides to come to an agreement.
   In June 1998, the zoning board approved the use variance, but attached a list of conditions to that approval. One of the conditions stipulated that off-street parking must be found if the church wants to have more than 39 people in the building at one time. There are 13 parking spaces on the property.
   The Covenant Christian Ministries signed a lease with the Trenton Board of Education that provided parking spaces at the nearby Columbus School on Thursday nights and Sunday mornings. Also, the township’s Land Use Ordinance was revised in 1998 to allow houses of worship as a permitted use in the Neighborhood Commercial zone.
   The Business Group of Brunswick Avenue then filed a lawsuit, challenging the zoning board’s decision to grant the use variance. But in 1999, Judge Yaskin upheld the zoning board’s June 1998 decision.
   The objectors, which included the Business Group of Brunswick Avenue, K&H Automotive, Royal Cleaners, Super Deli, Rosa Laundromat, L.J. Flickinger, Todd Leatherman and Peter Radice, appealed Judge Yaskin’s ruling to the Appellate Division.
   In their appeal, the objectors claimed that the zoning board’s 1997 denial of the use variance remains in effect because it was not reversed or vacated. They claim that the trial court could not send an application back to the zoning board because it wanted the board to consider new evidence.
   But the Appellate Division judges said that Judge Feinberg sent the application back to the zoning board because of the change in the Land Use Ordinance and because the church had obtained a lease for parking from the Trenton school board.
   The objectors also claimed that the church’s attorney made repeated references to Judge Feinberg during the public hearing held by the zoning board to reconsider the use variance application. Those references intimidated the zoning board, the objectors claim.
   The Appellate Division judges wrote there was no evidence that the board was influenced by the references to Judge Feinberg, nor did the objectors cite case law that prevents the mentioning of a judge’s name.
   The Appellate Division judges also rejected a claim by the objectors that the church’s attorney erroneously relied on a specific court case and misled the zoning board into thinking that churches are inherently beneficial uses.
   "This contention is without merit. Use of property as a church is inherently beneficial," the Appellate Division judges wrote. An inherently beneficial use is one that benefits the community, such as a church, school or hospital.
   The objectors also said the lease between the church and the school board violated the statute of frauds and public bidding laws. But the trial court decided it could not rule on those issues because the City of Trenton was not in court, the Appellate Division judges wrote.
   Finally, the claim that the lease was an unconstitutional entanglement of church and state was thrown out because the school board was not a party to the lawsuit, according to the Appellate Division ruling.