Church buys former Club building, Canton Zoning Board could decide Jan. 16 if church can have services there
Saturday, January 12, 2019 - 8:48 am

By ADAM ATKINSON

North Country This Week

CANTON – The Christian Fellowship Center now owns the former Club Restaurant.

The CFC’s plan to use its newly acquired building at 25 Court St. will once more be reviewed by the Canton Zoning Board of Appeals on Jan. 16 at 7 p.m. in the municipal offices.

The CFC closed on the purchase of the property, previously the site of the now defunct The Club restaurant, on Friday afternoon, Jan. 11, said CFC Canton pastor Jamie Sinclair. The final purchase price was $310,000, said Sinclair.

The ZBA is deliberating on an appeal of Code Enforcement Officer Jeff Murray’s decision to deny the CFC a use permit for the property. Murray denied the CFC’s application because the lot is in the C1 commercial zone.

A 2006 revision of village code focused the C1 zone more specifically on commercial development in the heart of the village and denied churches and religious organizations from operating on properties there.

Several other zones surrounding the C1 zone, and comprising the majority of the village, allow churches to operate without restrictions.

The CFC has appealed to the board based on re-labeling the CFC as a fraternal or charitable organization, or reconsidering the denial under the auspices of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which prevents religious discrimination in some specific zoning matters.

This will be the third meeting for the ZBA. Last month the board met to discuss the appeal and several issues raised in protest by community and business members at a public hearing in November. During the December meeting, ZBA chairman Conrad Stuntz said the board was still waiting on some legal interpretations of the federal law and of the local zoning law before they could issue a final say in the matter.

The CFC wants to set up its Canton branch congregation there. Numbering about 100, the group currently meets at a space at the Best Western.

An evangelical religious organization based in Madrid, the CFC has several congregations throughout St. Lawrence County including the Canton group. Sunday congregants at all of the branches combined number about 650.

Jamie Sinclair, son of the CFC senior leader Rick Sinclair, said the organization had intended to buy the property regardless of the final ZBA decision.

Prior to the recent purchase, Sinclair met with the village planning board in December to get approval to use the property as office space instead of specifically for religious services, with the hopes the Canton group could close on the deal and move in at that time. That application was denied due to the matter under consideration by the ZBA and the fact that the CFC is still considered a church and churches are not allowed to operate in the commercial zone of the village.

Sinclair has stated that the organization is researching legal options if denied by the ZBA.

The historic building at 25 Court St. began as a gentlemen’s club and housed several restaurants over the years. The last, The Club operated by Rick Cassare, closed last summer. The lot was listed for sale since then by the owner Custmo Inc., whose chief executive officer is listed as Alfred Cassare.

The total assessed value of the property is $250,000. It was listed on local realty sites for $650,000.

The CFC had a purchase offer on the lot with the owners for several months before closing on the deal on Friday.

Public opposition to the church housing its congregation at the lot, as voiced at the hearing in December and in letters and comments to this paper, include:

• the CFC’s purchase taking a commercial property off of the tax roles;

• the building’s repurposing as something other than a restaurant (its traditional use);

• lack of parking for large church gatherings; and

• the state’s 200-foot alcohol setback rule from religious buildings which could prevent commercial restaurant development around the lot. Nearly 13 buildings, featuring multiple units would fall within 200 feet of the 25 Court St. site.