By Cady Kuzmich
CLIFTON PARK —An overflowing crowd gathered in the Clifton Park Town Hall Tuesday evening, September 27, for a tense meeting on The Northway Church’s expansion plans in the southern Saratoga County town, however no action was taken by the planning board.
The church, which draws large crowds at its existing site in the North Country Commons Plaza off Route 146, has plans to expand its presence in Clifton Park. During Tuesday evening’s meeting, townspeople voiced concerns regarding increased traffic and the church’s potential growth.
Pastors Buddy and Debbie Cremeans brought the non-denominational church to Clifton Park and settled in the unassuming North Country Commons Plaza, next door to the Upstate Concert Hall, in 2002. In the 14 years since, the Cremeans have expanded The Northway Church, which also broadcasts on television, to locations in White Plains, Massachusetts and Delaware.
In May, Donald Cremeans, aka Pastor Buddy, submitted a project proposal to the town Planning Board for a larger church on the 6.8-acre lot at the southwest corner of Ushers Road and Pierce Road.
On Tuesday evening Pastor Buddy’s son, Devin Cremeans, advocated for the 40,000 square foot church. The project includes a parking area large enough to accommodate more than 400 cars and a 7,500-square-foot outdoor patio at the church’s entrance.
Noting the religious land use and institutionalized persons law of 2000, the deputy town attorney, Paul Pelagalli, basically said the board’s hands are tied regarding the land’s use.
“The reality of the situation is [the property is] adjacent to Exit 10. That’s prime real estate. You can go to some of the most rural parts of the country and transportation is always a driver of development. From a land use perspective, what’s being proposed here is a much more reasonable use than industrial manufacturing with trucks coming in everyday with hundreds of workers,” said Planning board chairman Rocco Ferraro.
“You’re not sounding very neutral, Mr. Ferraro,” said Kathryn Gerbino of Ballston Spa. Gerbino’s husband, Joe, shouted “It’s a business. It’s not a church. It’s got nothing to do with religion!”
Noting the fact that the area is zoned as light industrial property, Ferraro said the idea of keeping it as a green space was not realistic. “I’m telling you that’s not going to be the case. It’s not going to be forever wild,” said Ferraro.
Though the applicant is still under the minimum green space requirements though it has increased the amount of greenery since its original proposal. “We don’t want to see a sea of asphalt. The applicant did a decent job,” said planning board member Andrew Neubauer.
Planning board member Jeffrey Jones said he spent hours reading through 114 pages of social media comments from community members regarding the church. “Contrary to what you might believe, we listen to what everybody says,” he said.
“I have concerns about the aesthetics. I wasn’t happy with the trees [being cut]. We walked the site and we came up with a pretty good compromise. Where there was going to be no trees, now we have a 30 foot wide buffer of trees,” said Jones.
Cremeans said Northway Church hosts Saturday evening services at 6 p.m. and three Sunday services which all average between 200 and 400 people.
The traffic study, which claims the church’s peak traffic period Sunday morning would be 35 percent less busy than the area’s overall traffic period, is based on two services rather than three on Sunday morning.
“Tonight I learn about three services, but now you’re saying two services,” said planning board member Eric Ophardt.
“We’re hoping to consolidate to two services,” answered Cremeans.
Jones echoed the concerns that many community members voiced, saying, “Two weeks ago, we were told there would be Saturday and Sunday services. Now, there’s more. I get an uneasy feeling.” Some of the additional services include “power brunches” on Wednesdays which Cremeans said aim to “teach entrepreneurship to community.”
In response to Ferraro’s concerns about the church’s future growth, Cremeans said they had “No intention of increasing our activity.” Later in the meeting Cremeans said, “Our hope is to grow. We believe that this is a gift to the community.”
A community member replied, “Keep it.”
Joanne Pelosi, of Ballston Lake, presented a hard copy of an online petition against the church’s proposal which gathered 359 signatures as of Tuesday.
Glen Valle, president of the Country Knolls Civic Association urged the board to take it’s time with this application and consider the importance of the area’s green space. “Nobody from the church reached out to the community. It may be a gift to the people of Clifton Park, but frankly, we prefer you keep it gift wrapped,” said Valle.
He continued, “Churches don’t need to be seen to be heard and do the good deeds they have bragged about doing over the last few weeks. If Mother Teresa was down here proposing a similar facility, I’d say the same thing.Right to a church but may not be an inalienable right to a megachurch”
Valle added, “We cannot rely on a traffic study that’s paid for and presented by the applicant. It needs to be scrutinized.”
After hearing from over a dozen community members, both in favor and opposed to the proposal, Ferraro recommended the board not take action.
“We don’t want the can to be kicked down the road,” said Cremeans.
“We have to respect the process and the issues that have been raised,” replied Ferraro.