The New Apostolic Church got the green light last week to build on Losson Road in Cheektowaga.
The approval came despite a laundry list of objections from Cheektowaga Supervisor Diane Benczkowski.
"It wasn’t because it was a church,” Benczkowski said, explaining her lone dissenting vote. “This goes back almost a year. The land is beautiful, a vacant old farmstead. Residents were concerned about traffic and wildlife. Reinstein Nature Preserve is right across the street.”
The New Apostolic Church has conducted services since 1956 in its location at 314 Pine Ridge Road, but church leaders are looking to combine the Cheektowaga congregation with congregations in West Seneca and the Town of Tonawanda.
The 9,200-square-foot building would be constructed on a seven-acre parcel of former farm land purchased from Cheektowaga Councilman Gerald P. Kaminski Sr. The church, designed to seat 240 people, will have parking for 92 cars.
The $1 million-plus project had the backing of every official on the Town Board except Benczkowski, who resides in a neighborhood near the site of the planned church at 1051 Losson and Wedgewood Drive.
When the Cheektowaga Planning Board met last August, about 15 residents who were opposed to the project registered concerns over lighting, increased church activity and traffic volume.
Edwin and Patricia Kirisits, who have lived on nearby Baywood Drive for 26 years, attended the Planning Board session.
“It’s a traffic and safety issue,” Patricia Kirisits said. “It’s not that we’re opposed to the congregation; the problem is congestion. There are so many other vacant properties they could rehab -- like the Garden Village Plaza -- yet they want to build on green space.”
Edwin Kirisits pointed to three other churches already in the area: St. Mary’s Orthodox Church, 940 Losson; St. Philip the Apostle Church, 950 Losson and Lord of Life Lutheran Church, 1025 Borden Road in Depew.
"What happens on Sunday mornings when all three have a 10 o'clock service?" said Patricia Kirisits. "It's like living in Orchard Park during Bills games."
Efforts to contact New Apostolic Church Pastor Michael J. Wurst led to Steve Brady, the church's national chief operating officer. Brady said he is familiar with the local congregations at 33 Mill Road in West Seneca and at 4229 Delaware Ave. in the Town of Tonawanda.
In the 60 years that New Apostolic Church has had a presence in Cheektowaga, it has kept a low profile, Brady said.
"We don't have office hours. We don't have paid ministers," Brady said. "That is the reality of our church globally. We are a fairly quiet neighborhood presence."
"Building was not our first preference," Brady said. "It's a huge drain on our resources – emotionally and financially -- but we could not find anything to renovate. We've been down this road before. Change is difficult for anyone. It just takes time to adjust. We're quiet people, and we subtly go about our business. We just try to be good Christians."
The New Apostolic religious denomination has its roots in post-Reformation Germany in the mid-17th century, Brady said.
"It came to the U.S. basically through immigration after World War I and World War II," he said. "Our theology is similar to the Catholic Church."
In the United States, there are 225 active congregations and 31,000 parishioners, Brady said.
New Apostolic's current local properties will be sold, said Brady, who estimates 150 parishioners will attend the new prairie-style church building. Hour-long services are scheduled Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings.
"Churches are no longer rectangle," said Brady. "People want to have engagement -- in small spaces. It changes the whole layout. We want to draw people in."
Ralph Lorigo is an attorney who represents the interests of Kulback’s Construction, the project's general contractor headquartered in Lancaster. Lorigo described the church's use of the property as "one of the least intensive you could consider."
"The church agreed to put sidewalks throughout the property," said Lorigo. "The town wanted us to do a traffic study. We did and found no significant adverse impact to the environment. I sent out 280 letters to neighbors inviting them to an informational meeting with residents. There was a major amount of opposition from the subdivisions."
Supervisor Benczkowski, meanwhile, said she respected the process of site plan approval.
"I did fight the issue," she said. "I voted against it, and I did come up with the reasons I didn’t want the church there."
Kaminski, former owner of the property, said he could have sold the land to developers who planned to construct patio homes.
"I can't come up with a single reason why anyone would be against a church," Kaminski said. "The whole thing was totally beyond my understanding."
Brady said hopes to break ground in early spring and "then run a standard nine to 12 months for construction until certificate of occupancy is in hand."