Church Vying To Buy Congers Restaurant Site; Hopes Clarkstown Will Remove Restrictive Covenant On Property

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Clarkstown Planning Board Defers Issue Due To The Absence Of One Board Member; Board Being Asked For A Recommendation By Town, Again

By Tina Traster

Nearly 50 members of the Rehoboth Church of God filled the seats at the Town of Clarkstown’s Wednesday night Planning Board meeting to be seen. The church congregants turned out, even though they understood they would not have a chance to tell the board about their church and why they’d like to move it from rented space in New City to Route 303 in Congers. There was no public hearing scheduled on the petition that stands between the $1.3 million pending sale of the restaurant site to the church.

At issue is whether the Vasti family (FJV Realty LLC, ) can sell the Bella Gianna restaurant site at 77 Route 303 North to a church, or to any other entity that does not plan to continue using the property for restaurant use. This is an odd dilemma; one that stems from a “restrictive covenant” that runs with the land and limits its use to a restaurant.

For nearly two years, the Vastis, have been unsuccessful in getting the restrictive covenant lifted. Ultimately the decision rests with the Town Board but the town looks to the Planning Board for guidance on an issue like this. In March, the town council bounced the controversy back to the Town Planning Board for its recommendation on the request to lift the covenant. On Tuesday, after the Board went into executive session to presumably discuss this issue, Board Chairman Gil Heim told the audience the board planned to defer discussion on the topic because one board member, Doug Katz, was not present. There have been numerous instances when the Board has made significant decisions with less than a full board.

“The Church is seeking an amendment,” said Lawrence Garvey, the Rockland County Republican Chair, part-time Rockland Green attorney, and presumptive primary challenger to George Hoehmann, who is representing FJV Realty LLC. “Last year, they were looking to do retail but that was not approved. Now they’re looking for an alternative.”

Church members were taken aback when the discussion shut down abruptly.

“We have a 10 percent deposit that we’ve put down on the Church,” said Samuel Varghese, the Church pastor to RCBJ. “We have been renting space in the Presbyterian Church on New Hempstead Road for five years, but it limits times when we can worship. We are looking for our own space.”

The purchase is contingent upon the Vastis getting the restrictive covenant lifted. If purchased, the property will come off the town’s tax rolls.

On March 14, the Town of Clarkstown referred an amended petition by FJV Realty LLC, the Vasti family, to modify the restrictive covenant and authorize a SEQRA review to the Planning Board. During that meeting, Varghese told the Town Council that his congregation, founded in 1888 and growing, was part of an international religious organization with 36,000 churches in 78 countries.

“The church is not a fly-by-night operation,” Varghese told the town.

Varghese on Tuesday told RCBJ that the Church has some 70 congregants and that he hopes to buy the former restaurant to hold services on Friday through Saturday. He said the congregation does not plan to use it during the week.

In March 2022, the Town of Clarkstown deferred to a recommendation from the Town Planning Board to keep a restrictive covenant in place on the restaurant property at 77 Route 303 in Congers. The board had voted four-one to uphold the recommendation of the Town Planning Board, which voted against allowing use of the property to change from restaurant to commercial and office. Councilman Patrick Carroll cast the dissenting vote. The Town Board echoed concerns over setting a precedent for lifting covenants but also questioned the applicant, an exterminator, on the veracity of its representations.

The restaurant property has been for sale for nearly five years. In the past it had received offers from restaurateurs. COVID 19 diminished the restaurant’s vitality, which has been closed for nearly two years.

Originally, the parcel that the restaurant sits on  — which is surrounded by a mostly residential neighborhood to the east of Route 303 — was zoned R-15. The property was re-zoned to CS (commercial shopping) to accommodate Romolo’s restaurant, but the restrictive covenant limited the owners from expanding the use of the property to those otherwise permitted in the CS zone including churches, schools, offices, animal hospitals, auto parts stores, appliance stores and many other retail uses.

Bella Gianna’s purchased the restaurant property from Romolo’s in 2007 for $1.4 million.