Holy Cross denied; appeal promised

Zoning Board votes 6-1 against plan to expand school, church

By jane waterhouse

Holy Cross denied; appeal promised

JERRY WOLKOWITZ The Rev. Joseph Hughes, (l) pastor of Holy Cross Church, Rumson, speaks with Robert Gorski, the church’s project architect, before the Zoning Board meeting where board members voted on the church’s plans for expansion Sept. 10.JERRY WOLKOWITZ The Rev. Joseph Hughes, (l) pastor of Holy Cross Church, Rumson, speaks with Robert Gorski, the church’s project architect, before the Zoning Board meeting where board members voted on the church’s plans for expansion Sept. 10.

Zoning Board votes 6-1 against plan to expand school, church

By jane waterhouse


For a few minutes, it looked as though the Rumson Zoning Board of Adjustment might approve the Holy Cross application to expand its church and school.

Chairman Bill McCarter began the Sept. 10 meeting by conceding that the proposed 19,000-square-foot expansion was widely unpopular among borough residents.

"With the single exception of Mr. [John] Mulheren, not one non-parishioner living in Rumson spoke in favor of the plan," he said.

However, McCarter asserted that those opposing the plan had not made their case.

"They didn’t show sufficient evidence of a compelling harm," he said, referring to state Supreme Court case Sica vs. Board of Adjustment of Wall (1992), which found that the development of a property for church and/or educational purposes met the state’s criterion as "inherently beneficial," thereby shifting the burden of proof.

The tip of the scales in favor of Holy Cross was short-lived, however. One by one, the other board members read thoughtfully composed — and, in some cases, passionately delivered — statements expressing their intent to vote against the plan.

Richard Kneisler said, "I see this as a new church, not an addition."

Harry Clayton agreed, characterizing the proposal as "excessive and unreasonable."

"The question is, when or where does this stop?" asked Jack Doremus. "And I think it should stop right now. The site is so densified that every time you go to expand one part of it, it impacts another, so you need another variance."

Doremus said that on several occasions, the board had asked the attorney for Holy Cross, Bennett M. Stern, to rethink the proportions of the expansion.

"But Mr. Stern didn’t compromise," he said. "He just came back with the same way-too-big plan."

Doremus dismissed the testimony of Holy Cross’s traffic expert, Michael Ney, calling it "ludicrous," and predicted that if the application passed, "five years from now, we’ll be sitting in traffic gridlock, and some expert will say, ‘well, I never expected this.’ "

"It’s been difficult to sit here for the past nine months in judgment of something that should have been decided within the parish," said Gertrude Parton, making a reference to a group of parishioners who opposed the plan. "But since the plan was presented as a whole, we must vote on it as a whole, yea or nay," she continued.

She scoffed at a compromise put forth by Stern that involved the removal of an historic windmill on the property, suggesting instead that more room could be gained by better use of the existing facilities.

Parton was not the only board member to make that suggestion.

John Emory cited the closing of the mission church, Holy Rosary, and its subsequent sale to Rumson businessman John Mulheren, as having contributed to the present crowded conditions. He stated that while the new church addition would seat 600 people, there was no way to enforce the number of worshippers who attend a given service. "My concern is that we’re being asked to approve a plan that doubles the capacity of the church so that it can accommodate 600, and once that’s done, they could use the gym for additional seating to serve up to 1,200. That would be disastrous for Rumson," he said.

Emory maintained that this wasn’t speculation on his part. "Take the Holy Cross rectory, for example," he said. "The building was originally zoned to house the pastor’s living quarters, the church offices and a multi-purpose room. That proves how plans change over time — because somehow the rectory became fully residential, without the approval of the zoning board."

Meredith Armitage said that, despite Stern’s constant references to Sica and beneficial use, a denial of the application would not curtail the practice of religion at Holy Cross. She characterized the expansion as "a self-created problem" that was exacerbated by the sale of Holy Rosary and the misuse of existing space.

Expressing strong disapproval for the Rev. Joseph Hughes’ decision to turn the rectory into his own private living quarters, Armitage said that he had done this "without the required approval from the board for any and all such changes."

She concluded by saying that the approval of the plan would set "an ominous legal precedent for future overbuilding."

Throughout the proceedings, a large audience of residents and parishioners sat in silence, complying with McCarter’s admonition to refrain from making audible comments, clapping or booing.

After a brief period of deliberation, Kneisler made a motion to deny the application. The motion passed, 6-1, ending an almost epic application process that was fraught with controversy, tension and emotion.

But the vote didn’t end the quest for expansion. In a letter dated Sept. 11, Rev. Hughes vowed to fight the decision. "The purpose of this letter is two-fold; first to ensure that you hear from us first regarding this decision, and second to provide each of you with information regarding this decision and our future plans, in order that you do not have to rely on incomplete or inaccurate newspaper articles or hearsay," the pastor wrote.

He went on to say that Holy Cross intended to immediately appeal the decision in the federal court in Trenton "where a fair and impartial hearing can be heard."

In an interview with the Hub in August, Hughes expressed concerns that the borough Zoning Board was not a "fair and impartial" forum. "Parishioners of Holy Cross have had to recuse themselves," he said at that time. He said the non-Catholics on the board "don’t worship every Sunday the way we do."

In addition to Holy Cross parishioners, members of the neighboring Sea Bright Lawn and Tennis Club, which actively opposed the application, also were required to recuse themselves.

In his Sept. 11 letter Hughes stated that he, along with Bishop John Smith of the Trenton diocese; Monsignor Brietske, chairman of the Diocesan Building Commission; and members of the Holy Cross Building and Planning Committee, believed that the expansion would be approved on appeal.

Hughes listed three reasons in support of the case. First, he said that expert witnesses had testified that the project would have no detrimental effect on Rumson. He added that McCarter — an attorney and senior member of the board — had voted for approval.

Second, he questioned the major focus of the board — site density. The pastor wrote: "What was missing from any discussion was the simple fact presented several times by our experts that even after our expansion, both the First Presbyterian Church and St. George’s Episcopal church would remain with a larger ‘site density’ than Holy Cross."

He dismissed the board’s comments about moving the parish offices back to the rectory as "personal opinions."

His final point was that the decision flew in the face of both the Sica case and the Religious Land Use act. "The record of our case is devoid of any evidence of adverse public impact," he said.

Hughes assured parishioners that the cost of the federal court case would not come out of parish funds or pledges. "The legal fees for this appeal will be funded by way of a special legal fund that has been established through generous donations from Holy Cross supporters," the priest wrote.

One parishioner who opposed the expansion but wished to remain anonymous said, "It’s telling that he referred to the donors as ‘Holy Cross supporters,’ not ‘parishioners’ — if you ask me, ‘supporter’ is a code word for John Mulheren."