The Town of Hempstead Board of Appeals on Aug. 22 unanimously approved an application to allow a church at the former site of the Wander Inn, at 2880 Grand Ave. The Rev. Cesar Morataya, pastor of the Uniondale-based congregation Centro Biblico Casa de Restauracion, said he hoped to move the church to Baldwin by the end of the year.
Many Baldwinites spoke in opposition to the church at a July 18 public hearing, saying there were too many churches on Grand Avenue, which has six between Ethel T. Kloberg Drive and Sunrise Highway. Susan Cools, a resident who spoke at the hearing, said she was disappointed with the board’s decision.
“As I testified that day, I think this is unfortunate for our community,” Cools said. “In a town where we have little commercial property, to lose properties like that off our tax roll is very damaging to the community.”
Erik Mahler, president of the Baldwin Chamber of Commerce, said the Wander Inn paid high taxes — one of the reasons it was forced to close in 2017. He said he was worried about how the church’s tax-exempt status might affect other businesses in Baldwin. “It’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Mahler said. “Now that property will be taken off the tax roll, which will increase the taxes for all the other properties.”
The decision, though disappointing to residents, did not come as a surprise, as Board of Appeals Chairman David Weiss had indicated in July that the board would approve it because the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 prohibits the denial of such a proposal (see box). “Even though there was an incredible amount of opposition, the opposition’s objections are not well-founded because it’s not a criteria we can use to deny any type of religious use,” Weiss said at the hearing.
Morataya’s church opened eight years ago, and is a member of the Freeport Bible Center. The building that housed the Wander Inn from 1952 to 2017, he said, is falling apart, and he plans to repair it. The congregation has about 70 members from Baldwin, Morataya said.
The application also included a variance for parking requirements — it will provide about 30 fewer spaces than required — which was approved.
Under the board’s decision, counseling and rehabilitation services of any kind are prohibited at the Grand Avenue site, as are any catered functions. Centro Biblico cannot lease or rent the site to any other entity. Morataya told the board that anyone in need of counseling services would be directed elsewhere by the church. “We have some groups in Brooklyn that we work with,” he said.
Coming to Baldwin was never part of Morataya’s plan, he said, but he believes God led him to the community. “We were looking in other places,” he said. Having a permanent church, he said, is a dream that he and his wife, Rosa, have had for years. Thus far they have rented space in Uniondale, where their 125 members have met and prayed every week.
Some residents who spoke at the July hearing criticized the church for a lack of communication, saying they learned about the plans and details of the congregation for the first time through the Herald. “When you don’t have much community outreach . . . and we’re learning about your congregation through the media, it’s a little concerning,” resident Julie Leake said.
Services will be held on Sundays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and Wednesdays from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m., with the latter being a smaller service, according to Christian Brown, the attorney who represented the church in its application to the town.