North Amityville Churches Struggle Over Zoning Codes

November 19, 2000

Source: The New York Times

On November 19, 2000, The New York Times reported that "THEY have names like The Revelation Church of God in Christ, Ephesus Church and Living Waters Evangelistic. They are scattered about North Amityville like seeds sown by the wind...Wherever they are, the neighbors who wake up one morning to find that they are living next to a church often find it anything but a blessing. Peter Casserly, Babylon's commissioner of planning and development, said that neighbors often called the town to complain of increased traffic and noise, often in the form of amplified music during religious services. Some churches stand for years in an uncompleted state...Having a church next door, said Milton Bond, president of the North Amityville Taxpayers Association, has a negative effect on property values, which residents and local officials are striving to boost as the community recovers from a crime wave that created havoc in the 1980's. For the past four years, some residents have been working closely with the Town of Babylon to stem the tide through enforcement of zoning and fire codes. One church has been shut down and dozens of code citations have been issued. But the churches have members, and some of them oppose the crackdown. And beyond the sensitivity of the attempt to regulate the exercise of religious beliefs, a racial overtone has crept into the debate, pitting some black congregations against white town officials...As places of public assembly, churches fall under specific building and fire safety codes, which govern such subjects as emergency exits and electrical wiring. Mr. Casserly said that these little churches uniformly ignored the codes, posing a safety hazard...The debate over the churches comes in the context of a larger drive to clean up North Amityville, which has had a black community since before the Civil War but fell on hard times only in the last quarter of the 20th century. In the early postwar years, North Amityville was a model community for America's emerging black middle class. Many black veterans of World War II settled here as an alternative to Levittown, which was segregated white...Chuck Howlett, a social studies teacher at Amityville High School since 1977 and a scholar of North Amityville history, said that it was only in the late 1970's and early 80's that crime became a serious problem. The intersection of Great Neck Road and Albany Avenue, known as the Corner, became an open-air market for drug dealers and a mecca of the crack cocaine epidemic of the late 1980's...Residents formed grass-roots groups that worked closely with the Suffolk County Police Department to rid the hamlet of abandoned vehicles, crime and drugs. Their efforts, which were helped by federal financing, have paid off. Police spokesmen say crime has decreased significantly. The Corner now boasts a Rite-Aid drug store and a European-American Bank. Frank Dell Accio, owner of Century 21 AA Realty in Lindenhurst, said home prices had increased recently in North Amityville and more homes were owner-occupied. And Robert Toussie, a Brooklyn developer, is scheduled to break ground next year for a 76-home subdivision near the intersection of Albany Avenue and Schleigel Boulevard. Houses in the new development will be priced at $300,000 to $400,000, double the average sale price of a North Amityville home, according to Mr. Dell Accio. Mr. Casserly said that five years ago such an investment in North Amityville was 'unheard of.' As part of the cleanup campaign, the town also began stricter enforcement of building codes and included the little churches were included in the scrutiny. Standing next to a lateral file in the planning office of Babylon's Town Hall, Mr. Casserly pulled open a drawer stuffed tight with files, all of which contained the paperwork on code violations for individual churches. Some of the recorded code violations go back as far as 1984. At least 15 churches are now in violation in the North Amityville area, having ignored town summonses, Mr. Casserly said, with many more churches in various stages of getting their facilities up to code...Other pastors in North Amityville say they have a good relationship with the town. The Rev. Jimmy Jack of Freedom Chapel, at 641 Broadway, which was forced to tear down a wooden house that was used for offices and children's Sunday church services, said nevertheless that the town had been 'patient and very cooperative.' Frank Alberti, one of six Babylon town lawyers, said that state courts expected local zoning boards to give greater deference to religious institutions than to commercial or residential owners. Therefore, Mr. Alberti said, the town tries to help churches get up to code as best they can. Mr. Casserly said that the churches' problem often was inadequate financing. But in the last year, he said, perhaps because of the improved economy, about a dozen churches have come up with the money to bring themselves up to code. St. Paul's Christian Tabernacle of America, at 589 Broadway in Amityville, is one of those churches that the town has, in Mr. Casserly's words, 'nurtured along.' The church broke ground in 1984, then ran out of money. For 10 years, the congregation, which numbers about 100, has been holding services in the foundation with tar paper on top. 'It's been a difficult history,' said the Rev. Raymond Thompkins, St. Paul's pastor. 'Banks don't like to lend churches money. And there are so many charlatans out there. One guy got our money and disappeared. He did the same to seven or eight other churches in Amityville, $37,000 from each church.'But St. Paul's now has its finances together. With loans from Fleet Bank and the United Mortgage Company, Mr. Thompkins hopes that St. Paul's will be finished by the end of the year."