A Babylon Village church is to begin feeding the needy from its basement kitchen in coming weeks, after the village's Zoning Board of Appeals ruled that the program was "well within the scope" of permitted uses.
Leaders of the Christ Episcopal Church, on Prospect Street, say the program will run monthly at first, then weekly, feeding 30 to 50 guests at a time.
The program has divided neighbors, sometimes bitterly, over issues of class, quality of life and what it means to be a good neighbor in an affluent suburban community. Opponents say it will bring unwanted strangers and traffic to a residential neighborhood already burdened by its proximity to busy Main Street. Supporters say some residents of Babylon Village and nearby communities will go hungry without it.
The Zoning Board of Appeals decision, issued May 22, did not assess those arguments but found the church needed no permission to use its kitchen and dining hall for church functions, meals included. The decision also referred to a deep body of legal precedent that gives churches wide latitude to engage in accessory uses that have a "religious purpose."
"The case law is extremely clear," Assemb. Thomas McKevitt (R-East Meadow), an expert on municipal law, said earlier this year. "Courts give a strong preference for these types of religious uses, and it is very tough to stop them."
With uses as disparate as Girl Scout meetings to correspondence schools construed as having "religious purpose," providing meals to the hungry and poor "clearly" falls within that category as well, the Zoning Board of Appeals found.
The Rev. Clare Nesmith, the church's priest-in-charge, echoed that reasoning in an interview last week when she said that feeding the hungry is a central tenet of the Christian faith. "This is what Jesus told us to do," she said.
Emotions in the neighborhood appear to have cooled since the February Zoning Board of Appeals hearing where there was talk that the feeding program might bring hypodermic needles and sex offenders into the neighborhood, and program supporters accused opponents of being small-minded and selfish.
"It's something that was needed, and there's no reason we shouldn't be able to provide it," said church member Mike Koehler, 31. "I assume they have adequately planned for whatever contingencies might arise." Guests will have access to about 100 parking spots in nearby public lots, and the church will station at least one volunteer on the street to direct parking, Nesmith said.
Parking and traffic are still problematic on Prospect Street and the nearby portion of South Carll Avenue, particularly in the early evening hours, said several neighbors who did not want to be quoted speaking about what is still a contentious matter.