Acting mayor Jane Williams-Warren’s administration has directed inspectors not to take enforcement actions against a single-family home converted to a church without zoning approval on residential Atlantic Street, according to municipal officials.
“Please do not send inspectors to the site [157 Atlantic Street] until further notice,” reads a two-sentence memorandum to Community Improvement Division inspectors from economic development director Ruben Gomez. Instructions were produced following a conversation with the acting mayor and law director Domenick Stampone, says the memo issued on Dec. 4, 2017.
Williams-Warren’s guidance came three weeks after the Paterson Board of Adjustment told pastor Jesus Sevilla to cease operating a church and food pantry from 157 Atlantic Street. He was before the board seeking permission to run a church from the address.
Sevilla’s neighbors opposed his application citing quality of life problems like loud noise and parking problems forcing the pastor to seek a postponement.
Both the board’s attorney Marco Laracca and planner Gary Paparozzi questioned under what authority the location was being used as a church.
“He should not be operating,” said Paparozzi at that Nov. 16, 2017 meeting. Laracca said he would refer the matter for enforcement to the Community Improvement Division.
Williams-Warren’s instructions undermines the zoning officials position. She did not respond to a call for comment on Monday morning.
“I’m disappointed,” said Karen Agosto, a resident of Atlantic Street, who has organized opposition against the “illegal” church, when told of the mayor’s instruction to inspectors. She attempted to secure a meeting with the acting mayor to tell her about the quality of life problems the growing church has created on Atlantic Street.
Agosto contacted the mayor’s office on Nov. 27. She could not secure a meeting with the mayor. On Dec. 1, she wrote an email mentioning the problems created by the church. She had difficulty putting her children to sleep and study for a state exam on Thursday of that week due to music with amplified speakers going at the church until 10:30 p.m.
Williams-Warren responded to Agosto’s email apologizing for the issues and promised her administration would address the matter. Her instruction communicated to inspectors through the economic development director has had the opposite effect.
Agosto said Sevilla has been retaliating against neighbors by calling inspectors to target those renting basements or attics and filing harassment charges. Sevilla filed harassment charges against Agosto and another neighbor. It’s not clear how many neighbors were targeted with harassment charges.
“I hate to say this, I’m a pastor, but she’s a pest,” said Sevilla. “She’s a troublemaker.” He alleged Agosto was spreading lies about him to neighbors. He also denied playing loud music late into the night – his church service ends at 9:30 p.m., he said.
When asked why he was filing municipal court complaints against his neighbors, Sevilla appeared to shift the blame to his lawyer. Sevilla also targeted political activist Ernest Rucker, who took an interest in the plight of residents on Atlantic Street.
“I laughed at it,” said Rucker of the harassment charge on Monday afternoon. The harassment charges were filed against Agosto, Rucker, and others for taking pictures or capturing videos of activity in the vicinity of the church property.
Rucker, who has battled far tougher opponents like once powerful mayor Jose “Joey” Torres over the years, is undeterred by the court complaint. However, Agosto and other neighbors, who have had little interaction with the court system, have panicked.
“They are scared to death of this guy. He’s using the cloth, God, to terrorize people. He’s a political domestic terrorist,” said Rucker.
Williams-Warren’s directive has emboldened the pastor. He was on the defensive when two dozen neighbors appeared before the zoning board to oppose his application.
Sevilla has extensive political connections in the municipal government. Some of his allies include councilmen Luis Velez and Andre Sayegh. Several members of the council have been advocating for the pastor behind the scenes.
“I don’t see the church affecting quality of life,” said Velez, the pastor’s biggest champion on the council. Sayegh, who denied providing succor to the pastor, said Sevilla did not seek his assistance with the issue.
Velez played a role in the meeting with the acting mayor on Dec. 4, 2017. Members of the Latino Pastors Association of Paterson met with the mayor. Sevilla is the director of the group. Velez said he was also in the meeting. Hours after the meeting, the memo was sent out to inspectors.
Among the issues that were discussed was the Atlantic Street situation. Sevilla urged the mayor to speak to David Gilmore to halt posting messages on social media.
“I didn’t ask her, ‘Mayor can you do this.’ Nothing,” said Sevilla.
Councilman Kenneth Morris was in disbelief when told of the memo. He said the mayor would not on her own issue a directive telling inspectors not to take enforcement actions. He later spoke to the mayor and said the intention of the memo is to put a moratorium on possible summonses while the pastor is pending an appearance before the zoning board.
Sevilla faced enforcement actions while the matter is pending before the board. He also complained police once interrupted service at his church. He suspected Agosto of calling police. Agosto denied it.
“Since when is worshiping God illegal?” asked Sevilla. His application to secure permission to run a church from the address is scheduled for a hearing before the Board of Adjustment on Jan. 25, 2018.