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Friday, January 26, 2007
BY NYIER ABDOU
A massive upgrade looks likely for the Church of the Hills following a settlement between Bedminster Township and the church approved yesterday in federal court that heads off a "potentially staggering" discrimination lawsuit.
The township committee, board of adjustment and a group of church members attended a special joint meeting yesterday morning before U.S. District Court Judge Stanley R. Chesler in Newark, where the parties voted unanimously to approve the settlement.
"I have little doubt it will be executed," Chesler said.
A phalanx of six attorneys, including two religious and constitutional experts, faced Chesler on behalf of the church, the township and the board.
Remarking on the considerable number of billable hours racked up in the case, Chesler called the settlement a "fair, reasonable and equitable" solution that would avoid costly litigation were a federal religious discrimination lawsuit to go forward.
Chesler said the township risked "a potentially staggering exposure in terms of money," if the municipality lost.
Not everyone in the courtroom agreed.
A group of some 20 neighbors of the property attended the hearing yesterday. Their attorney, Stuart Lieberman, of Princeton, filed an 11th-hour motion Wednesday to intervene in the case, saying the 26 families he represented were shocked to learn less than two weeks ago that a settlement was on the table.
Until then, Lieberman said, neighbors thought the township was seeking to uphold the board of adjustment's 2005 denial of the church's original application.
"They thought the governing body would work to affirm the denial, which they thought was a well-placed denial," Lieberman told the court. "This really affects their quality of life."
Lieberman said approving the settlement would "turn municipal land use law on its head," and invite every aggrieved house of worship to file federal lawsuits. "We're treading in a dangerous area here," he said.
But Chesler called Lieberman's last-minute attempt to intervene "simply untimely," noting the case has been before the court since July 2005.
The road to expansion has been paved with legal twists and turns for the growing Pentecostal church, which first submitted an application in the summer of 2002 seeking to expand its 18,500-square-foot converted horse barn on Route 206 to a complex four times in size. It later reduced the size to a proposed 65,137 square feet.
More than two years and 30 board of adjustment hearings later, the board voted unanimously to deny the church's plans in February 2005. In July 2005, the church filed a federal lawsuit against the township and board of adjustment claiming violation of the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.
RLUIPA protects houses of worship from stringent application of municipal land use laws.
Lieberman, who called the church's federal case a "bogus lawsuit," suggested the township only decided to settle because "the insurance company got scared."
"They're getting everything they could possibly want under the guise of RLUIPA," Lieberman said of the church.
Howard Cohen, one of the attorneys representing Bedminster, countered that. "There has been a dramatic change between what the church first submitted and what is in the proposed settlement," he said.
The approved settlement allows the church to build a 55,025-square-foot complex with a 600-seat sanctuary, gymnasium, nursery, bookstore, basketball court, classrooms and two sports fields. A "prayer pagoda" will host no more than 10 weddings a year.
The church will reorient the new structure to minimize exposure on Route 206 and neighboring properties and employ environmentally conscious and noise-minimizing measures. Parking will be limited to 300 spaces, including 50 turf-paved spots. Bedminster also will pay the church $150,000 toward legal fees.
The court's determination is not the final decision in the matter. The church must again submit an amended application conforming to the settlement. The board of adjustment will review the application, scheduling special meetings as necessary to expedite the mater. No extensions will be granted.
Nyier Abdou may be reached at [email protected] or (908) 429-9925.