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11/02/2005

Church plan left in limbo, Baptist church won't appeal

By W. JACOB PERRYM
Staff Writer

BERNARDS TWP. - Millington Baptist Church has declined to appeal a Planning Board vote that derailed its plans to build a new church on Mine Brook Road but has not decided whether to abandon the controversial project.

Advertisement "We're weighing a lot of options," Allen L. Smith, chairman of the church building committee, said Monday. "We're starting from square one - assessing where we are and where we want to be in 15 years." Millington Baptist, located at the corner of Valley and King George roads since 1852, has spent more than seven years seeking township and state approvals to build a 67,390-square-foot, multi-use church on 88.9 acres in the three-acre residential zone.

The project, which has been fought continuously by neighboring residents, would include up to 1,200 seats, 21 classrooms for Sunday school and 403 paved parking stalls.

The project suffered a major blow on July 19 when the Planning Board unanimously accepted objectors' arguments that it could not grant a final site plan approval because the application was filed after the preliminary approval had expired.

That effectively sent the plans back to the drawing board because Millington Baptist would need to get approval for a new preliminary site plan - something it first sought way back in the fall of 1998.

The board voted to memorialize its decision on Sept. 6, triggering a 45-day period in which the church could file a court appeal. The deadline fell on Sunday, Oct. 30. Smith, a resident of Basking Ridge, said Millington Baptist's 12-member Board of Elders reviewed the options and chose not to appeal, with the decision being announced at church masses on Sunday, Oct. 23.

The board was not anxious to sue and concluded that the preliminary approval probably had expired, he said.

Space Crunch

The church now has two main options: seek a new preliminary site plan; or abandon the project and sell the Mine Brook Road property. It bought the site in early 1999 for $1,013,500.

"We originally filed under a set of circumstances where there was double-digit growth (in church attendance), parking shortages and classroom shortages," Smith said. "Those issues are still with us."

The existing church complex includes a sanctuary for up to 500 people and a Christian education building. According to Smith, there are now five Sunday services - three in the morning and two in the evening - that combine to draw between 900 and 1,000 people.

With only 200 parking stalls, the church has had to arrange for off-site parking at the nearby Dewy Meadow Village shopping center, with a bus shuttling parishioners back and forth, Smith said. The Sunday school, he said, has also outgrown the complex and now has several classes off-site. Millington Baptist has no timeline for when it will make a decision, Smith said.

"There's a lot of praying about this," he observed. "We want to evaluate where we are as a church and where the Lord is leading us, and take it from there.

"We have to see what the growth is going to be like in 10 to 15 years, and what ministries we want to offer," he added. "We have to start all over again."

Smith declined to reveal how much the project has cost the church so far. The cost would include more than seven years of assorted legal and consulting fees.

The project received its preliminary approval in a 5-4 Planning Board vote in August 1999, following seven stormy hearings in which large crowds from the township and Far Hills attacked its size and scope.

Opponents then sued seeking to overturn the vote. But the approval was upheld by a state Superior Court judge in January 2001, and by an Appellate Court in April 2002. Because the project was outside the municipal sewer district, it also needed state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) approval to allow a septic disposal field near the Dead River. After a four-and-a-half year review, the DEP granted a final permit in April 2004.

An application for final site plan approval was then filed with the Planning Board, leading to the start of public hearings last December. But the objectors argued that the preliminary approval expired on Sept. 7, 2004, and that the proposal for final approval was not filed until 16 days later, on Sept. 23, 2004. They said the board should therefore dismiss the application. Board members ultimately agreed.

© Recorder Newspapers 2005