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July 21, 2005

Baptist church expansion plan suffers setback, Planning Board says Millington Baptist Church missed deadline to file plans for new facility.

By STEFANIE MATTESON
Staff Writer

BERNARDS -- The Millington Baptist Church will have to return to the beginning in its quest for a new facility on an 86-acre Mine Brook Road site in Liberty Corner.

The Planning Board ruled unanimously before a packed auditorium Tuesday that the church was late in filing the final site plan for the seven-year-old proposal because the application was received after the preliminary site plan approval had expired.

But senior Pastor Peter Pendell attributed the defeat to strong neighborhood opposition.

"We've been pushed back to square one," he said Wednesday.

The pastor, who declined to comment further on the issue, added, "We're going to pray and decide what God wants us to do."

To accommodate its growth -- the church has grown from about 600 regular worshippers 10 years ago to about 1,000 today -- the church is seeking to build a 67,390-square-foot complex with a sanctuary containing 1,200 seats, 21 Sunday school classrooms and 403 parking places.

Planning Board Chairman Scott Spitzer said he expected the church would return to the Planning Board fairly soon with a new preliminary site plan proposal.

The preliminary site plan, which was valid for three years, was memorialized by the Planning Board in September 1999 and received two one-year extensions, which brought the final expiration date to Sept. 7, 2004, Spitzer said.

But the church did not formally file a final site plan until Sept. 23, 2004.

The failure to file by the cutoff date was brought to the board's attention in May by neighbor Karen T. DelVento of 397 Old Mine Brook Road, who discovered the missed deadline by reading documents obtained through an Open Public Records Act request.

"The law was so clear; there was no way around that," said DelVento, a retired prosecutor who opposes the proposed facility.

In coming to its decision, the Planning Board heard arguments from both DelVento and from the church, which argued that because the preliminary site plan was amended in October 1999, the church had not missed the deadline. Church officials also argued the local ordinance did not disallow its application.

Spitzer said the Planning Board based its decision in part on the fact that in the course of applying for the two previous extensions, each of which expired Sept. 7, the church had never suggested Sept. 7 was not the key date.

The point of the cutoff date is to make certain the board has current information, DelVento said.

"This information is seven years old," she said. "How much has the congregation grown? How many additional ministries have been added? The board is entitled to current and meaningful information."

The church's plans have been opposed over the years by a committed group of neighbors, 32 of whom tried and failed to overturn the church's preliminary site plan approval in court.

DelVento said the neighbors will continue their crusade if the church decides to seek a new preliminary site plan approval.

The neighbors claim the proposed facility is too large for what they say is an environmentally sensitive area, DelVento said.

The plans call for five acres of parking and an 85-foot illuminated steeple, and the facility would bring an additional 2,400 cars every Sunday into an area of narrow country roads and bucolic farms, she said.

"It's taken generations to afford to come to a place like this and buy a home where you can sit down to dinner and hear nothing but the birds singing, instead of having headlights shining in your windows," DelVento said. "Everything these people have worked for all their lives could be taken away by the bang of a gavel."

Princeton attorney Stuart Lieberman, who represents two of the neighbors, agreed.

"Nobody minds an old-fashioned church or synagogue, but these plans are extremely expansive in scope," he said. "You don't expect to find office buildings as big as this. The illuminated steeple is so big, you could probably see it from the moon."

But despite strong feelings on either side, Spitzer promised the Planning Board would be impartial if the church comes back with another application, though he didn't promise the process would be speedy.

"The process takes time when you accord people their rights under the law," he said. "It's not the quickest process but, hopefully, it's fair to all the parties."

The church is now located at 520 King George Road in the Basking Ridge section, where it has been housed since members of the Mount Bethel Baptist Church started a sister church on the other side of the Passaic River in 1851. The Greek Revival church building opened in 1855, with a new church building opening in 1974.

Pendell attributed the church's rapid growth in the last 10 years to the population boom in the area and to the fact that the church attracts young people by "speaking in contemporary terms."

He said the church offers five services on Sundays and a wide range of activities during the week. *

Stefanie Matteson can be reached at (908) 707-3136 or [email protected].

from the Courier News website www.c-n.com

Copyright Courier News 2005