Court overturns Merrick church zoning decision

Judge: Hempstead board used "fatally flawed" reasoning in allowing St. Demetrios project


The State Supreme Court on Aug. 28 reversed the Town of Hempstead Board of Appeals’ 2017 decision to allow the construction of a community center at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church.

The Board of Appeals, Judge Leonard Steinman found, used “fatally flawed” reasoning, without enough explanation, when it determined that the expansion would not significantly impact the environment.

The church’s minister, the Rev. Nikiforos Fakinos, told the Herald last year that the 36,000-square-foot expansion would house 10 religious education classrooms, offices, a gymnasium and a kitchen, and pave the way for two youth athletic programs. After a 12-hour hearing in June 2017, the Board of Appeals OK’d the project, over the objections of several neighbors of the Hewlett Avenue church.

Local attorney John Healy filed a lawsuit on behalf of five of those neighbors against the board on Aug. 2, 2017, arguing that it did not consider environmental procedure, gave too much deference to a federal religious law and did not offer the opposing side its due process rights in reaching the decision.

Judge Steinman, however, found only that the board did not follow the State Environmental Quality Review procedures closely enough, and its determination that the expansion would not have a significant impact on the environment — including changing the character of the neighborhood —had to be thrown out.

Healy, on Tuesday, said that he was pleased with the outcome.

“We obviously agree with the decision,” he said. “The town board didn’t properly consider all the factors they were supposed to. The main contention for our whole group was that they were changing the residential character of our neighborhood by knocking down six houses and putting up a large commercial-style building.”

Steinman said in his decision that the board’s errors in the SEQR determination were enough to vacate the whole zoning decision, even though he disagreed with Healy’s argument that residents were not given a fair chance to argue against the expansion.

The residents “do not identify any testimony or exhibits that they were denied from presenting that may have impacted the board’s decision,” Steinman said. “Although petitioners may argue that the hearing was not perfect, it certainly was fair — their position was heard loud and clear over the course of a 12-hour hearing.”

Residents also initially argued that Board of Appeals member Katuria D’Amato had an apparent conflict of interest, because she is the sister-in-law of an attorney who used to be a member of the law firm representing St. Demetrios, and because a managing partner at the firm was a campaign adviser for her estranged husband, Alfonse D’Amato.

Steinman, however, found that there was no direct or indirect interest for D’Amato in the outcome, and pointed to the fact that the vote to OK the expansion was unanimous, anyway.

Bill Bonesso, the attorney for St. Demetrios, declined to comment on Tuesday, referring the Herald to the church. Fakinos had not responded to a request for comment by press time.

In 2017, Fakinos told the Herald that residents’ concerns were exaggerated, and that rumors about the project had hurt the church’s reputation.

“A lot of misinformation has been circulated, and it has a negative impact not only for the church, but on the residential values of the neighborhood properties,” he said. “We will be building classrooms and a beautiful gymnasium, where we can respond to some of the problems plaguing Long Island youth.”