Updated: St. Sharbel Looks To Replace Current Church With New Construction

Architect W. Michael Campbell displays an artist’s rendering of the proposed new St. Sharbel’s Church, targeted for Easton Avenue and Franklin Boulevard.

Update: The Zoning Board of Adjustment approved St. Sharbel’s application at its August 4 meeting.

In a brief hearing, the Board was told that any concerns held by the Township’s professional staff had been alleviated. The project’s planner also gave the requisite testimony that the project would not contravene the Township’s Master Plan.

St. Sharbel’s Maronite Church at Easton Avenue and Franklin Boulevard has served its parishioners well over the past five or six decades, but the time has come to start fresh, the Zoning Board of Adjustment was told on July 7.

Church officials and professionals appeared before the Board to win its approval to raze the existing church and build a new, 21,400-square-foot structure in its place.

But a final decision will have to wait until at least August, by which time four pages of questions from township staff should be answered by the church’s engineer and architect.

Plans call for the combining of several lots around the church and the demolition of four existing homes on the properties to create a 1.7-acre lot.

The new church will have seating for about 275 people, up from the current 220 people, and will offer 96 parking spaces on-site, the Board was told.

There will also be a new commercial kitchen constructed, as well as a 4,500-square-foot fellowship hall and 10 classrooms.

The church’s priest, Fr. Simon El Hajj, told the Board that there are currently about 496 families who attend the church, and that there are no expectations that the congregation will grow in any substantive way because of the nature of its makeup.

“The church is an ethnic church,” he said. “This is the community coming together here. Of course, it’s open to everyone, because of our ethnicity … it’s really hard for people from the outside to join us.”

Fr. Simon, as he’s called, said that masses are held weekdays at 10 a.m., at 5 p.m. on Saturdays and 11 a.m. on Sundays.

The classrooms, he said, would be used from 1:30 to 4:45 p.m. on Saturdays to teach the children Arabic and for religious education.

He said that the day care center has moved and will not be returning to the new church.

There are no plans to rent the church out, although they do have a major festival in June, which is also the church’s main fundraiser, he said.

“We are coming together as a community in this beautiful township, our parishioners are all U.S. citizens, and they’re all trying hard to be a part of the community,” Fr. Simon said.

The proposed church’s architect, W. Michael Campbell, said the current church needs to be replaced because it is “kind of substandard construction.”

“If you walk through there, the floor is uneven, laminated wood arches embedded into the masonry, and it’s only a matter of time before moisture deteriorates arches and you have problems,” he said.

“Building a building today is not like building one 60 years ago,” Campbell said. “Building the same building by today’s standards is going to increase the footprint by 20 or 30 percent to comply with the standards.”

The new church “is not to increase the intensity of the use of the site, it’s just to better serve the people who are already there. It’s a specific religious community that they’re serving, and they just want to serve them better.”

Lee Klein, the church’s traffic consultant, told the Board that the additional traffic generated by the increased seating and parking spaces “will not be an impact to the area and there should not be an impact to the operation of the intersections.”

The Board is scheduled to resume the hearing at its August meeting.

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