Update: Zoning Board Denies Chai Center Variances

Rabbi and board plan to weigh their options and figure out what to do next.

After two years of hearings and almost 5½ hours of public input Monday night, the Zoning Board of Adjustment denied the variances sought by the Chai Center, which would have allowed a 16,350-square-foot synagogue in Short Hills. 

Rabbi Mendel Bogomilsky said he and his attorneys would review their options, which range from looking for another lot to appealing the decision and continue fighting for the space they have now.

“If this case goes to the Supreme Court, and it might, and it takes 10 years, the town won’t interfere with what we do now because they signed an agreement not to,” he said. “I don’t know what we’ll do, we’re keeping our options open, but we will continue operating as we are now.”

That means, they will continue to hold prayer services, Hebrew school classes and High Holy Day services in the Dutch Colonial he calls home on Jefferson Avenue.

More than 200 people attended the meeting at Millburn High School, where at least 44 presented views on either side of the issue – those who want the synagogue built as a welcome addition to the community and those who object to the size of the building and to the fact that the lot 40 percent less of the required three acres for a house of worship. Others were mostly worried about traffic, which is already an issue on Old Short Hills Road, where the center would have been built.

One of the positive things to come out of last night’s hearing, said Chai Center spokesman David Schraeder was the fact that residents repeatedly said they welcomed the Orthodox synagogue in the town, just not on that lot.
“That’s a big change,” he said. “I think it can be a step toward healing the community after this long process. Perhaps there’s a bigger lot we can find. Perhaps there are other options. We’ll see where we go from here.”

While many supporters of the Chai Center saw the fight over the variances as a battle for religious freedom, zoning board members said it was a zoning case and nothing more.

“It’s the most complicated case I’ve ever been involved in,” said Zoning Board of Adjustment President Joseph Steinberg. “It has taken 22 months to get here. And it is not a question of whether it is a good thing or bad thing to allow a religious institution. The law already states that a religious institution is inherently beneficial. And we agree with that.”

The issues, he said, come down to three variances – two front yard set backs as a corner lot and a minimum three-acre condition use variance.

The opposition to the center also argued that the center was also seeking an additional six variances that ranged from parking to land use.

It was the first time in 16 meetings on the subject that residents got a chance to give their views, and not only did the vocal opposition speak impassionedly about the proposed synagogue being too large for the neighborhood, residents who attend the center made emotional appeals of the need for an Orthodox synagogue in town.

“Many Jews in our town have to come to the center to celebrate High Holy Days or for prayer services,” said resident and chabad member Robin Halpern. “They are appalled by the opposition and what has been going on.”

That said,

In fact, many of those in opposition said they hoped the Chai Center could find a more suitable lot in town and said they welcomed Rabbi Bogomilsky as a neighbor.

A lot had been said leading up to the meeting by members of the Chai Center that they felt discriminated against because they choose to practice very traditional Judaism.

Many neighbors opposing the center are Jewish and said that is offensive.

“As a Jew, I am deeply ashamed that people are raising anti-Semitism as an issue,” said Short Hills resident Jeffrey Beckerman. “It’s not a religious issue…. Respect the master plan; respect the residents of Millburn. By granting such a large exception to the rule, the exception becomes the rule.”

That line was repeated by board members later when discussing how large a variance the Chai Center needed to fit a 16,000-sqare-foot building on the 1.8 acre lot.

The Concerned Neighborhood Association of Millburn Township, also known as Save Millburn, was represented by a lawyer in the proceedings, so its board members were unable to speak. But the group’s communications director, Mike Becker spoke about their concerns about traffic, noise and a safety, as well as the structure being too big and sitting too close to the streets, which is not in keeping with the character of the neighborhood.

Residents are also worried that if the Chai Center got its variances, the congregation would grow, despite the rabbi’s suggestions that it will remain small because Hasidism and Orthodoxy are not for everyone. In addition because the center’s other property on Millburn Avenue has a lien against it, residents said they fear a gift shop and a pre-school would eventually move into the building.

Roger Manshel recused himself from the vote and left at the beginning of the meeting, saying he had made the decision after the last meeting, where he was accused of being biased.

“I’ve asked difficult questions during these hearings…some have questioned my motives,” he said. “And while I feel I’m able to make fair and impartial decisions in this case, I am recusing myself.”

CHP February 15, 2012 at 01:21 AM
Only 1 jefferson is owned by the rabbi. The property next door is owned by a member of the chai center. To answer your question, taxes are being paid on all the properties right now.
WRR February 15, 2012 at 01:25 AM
To become an official HOW - hence the 3 acre requirement. Apples to oranges.
RJ February 15, 2012 at 01:40 AM
It has not been consistent and the limit is way too high to begin with.
RJ February 15, 2012 at 01:41 AM
So you would have been in favor of the location if the building were smaller. I find that hard to believe. Why didn't you propose an alternative design?
RJ February 15, 2012 at 01:58 AM
It is you who is the embarrassment. It is evident that you are attributing to him all of your own bad qualities. Your allegations are based on nothing more than rank speculation and no first-hand information. Rabbi Bogomilski is an outstanding member of the Millburn community, an amazing Rabbi, and wonderful person. The lengths you will go to slander and discredit him only show how weak your arguments are on the actual merits of his proposals.
MarkHJay February 15, 2012 at 03:30 AM
Bogomilsky - like Chabad as a whole - has played "mock the zoning law" for years. He deserved to lose, and he has. The really interesting question is whether in fact Bogomilsky is indeed permitted to continue using the existing structure as a house of worship. The settlement between Bogomilsky and the town obliged the town to refrain from enforcement action while Bogomilsky's application was pending. The application is not pending anymore. I have no doubt that Bogomilsky will institute litigation, but I do not believe that the settlement agreement will prevent Millburn from taking action to shut this synagogue down.
Cham February 15, 2012 at 02:45 PM
Obviously Orthodox Jews in MSH (including Rabbi Bogomilsky) have a right to pray. I am wondering if the opponents to the Jefferson Street Chai Center have a suggestion: where might Rabbi Bogomilsky legally establish his congregation in town?
Noreen Brunini February 15, 2012 at 03:20 PM
My understanding had been that this group would retain its right to use this site as a center of "in Home worship" . But the quote above got me to wondering what is the line that crosses one from a center of "in home worship" to a legally established HOW?
MillerTime February 15, 2012 at 03:40 PM
Well done board not allowing this variance that wasn't even close to the required amount of land. To Cham : I don't know of enough land anywhere in MSH for that size structure. I suppose he has to wait for enough land on some side by side estates to go on the market,knock them down and build. My sympathies to those neighbors whose homes will lose so much value.
J S Beckerman February 15, 2012 at 06:46 PM
Per land use law, yes. Once a HOW is established, they are allowed to bypass the variance hurdle for many on-site uses.
WRR February 15, 2012 at 07:26 PM
@ Susan1 and JSB: I believe they would have to get different variances for HOW, yeshiva and for-profit enterprise for tax purposes. Interesting: http://law.justia.com/cases/new-jersey/appellate-division-unpublished/2011/a1390-09-opn.html
Hedley February 15, 2012 at 07:34 PM
They don't want him anywhere in the town. They want him out. Some have even said so on these discussion boards.
WRR February 15, 2012 at 07:59 PM
To add: HOW are property tax exempt. I don't know about tuition at the Yeshiva. Any portion of the HOW that sell any goods or services are not exempt from income taxes. Variance for the different land use, I believe, is required. Also, traffic and "feel" of the neighborhood is not a viable reason to deny variance approval. It all comes down to land use and whether it's in accordance with the law.
CHP February 15, 2012 at 08:38 PM
As I have said several times, what is wrong with the facility that used to be occupied by the Short Hills caterers? There are plenty on homes close by for the walk to pray people. Though from the chai supporters who spoke in front of the board, it seems very few people walk and most drive. Other than one or two people, most lived several miles away. Not to mention Livingston and South Orange.
Hedley February 15, 2012 at 09:25 PM
"Other than one or two people, most lived several miles away." That's fair considering that many who claim to be affected by the dubious traffic claims don't live near the proposed Jefferson Ave, location.
CHP February 16, 2012 at 03:47 AM
It is zoned commercial so the use should work. Plus it was a catering hall that held events for 200 plus people so traffic is not an issue.
CHP February 16, 2012 at 04:03 AM
Hedley, You clearly were not at the meeting on Monday. There were no less than 10 speakers that opposed the site that lived on Park Circle, Park Rd, Jefferson Ave, Madison Terr, Nottingham, and Adams. For thr proponents, I counted only one family that lived on Park Rd. Others lived on Oval Rd, Watchung Rd, Millburn Ave, White Oak Ridge Rd, Livingston and South Orange. Mr. Gross the donator of the 7 Jefferson, lives on Highland. The one chai center board member, who had a hard time comprehending the rules, lives in Maplewood. Does anyone live near this thing? Or are they all tri-athletes?
Hedley February 16, 2012 at 05:37 AM
Wow, 10 people. How many of the "supporters" of Save Millburn live close by? It's easy to check. How many who post here live nearby? All in all, not many.
CHP February 16, 2012 at 06:16 AM
Is that the best you can do? It's you who contends that this is so vital to our community to have this religious center located where it is yet it's followers live no where near it. I guess they don't want it in their back yard either. Which only goes to show that the 47 car parking lot is a joke at best.
Hedley February 16, 2012 at 06:41 AM
I never said it was vital to the community, just that the Rabbi is clearly not getting, and has not gotten for nearly 20 years, a fair shake, and his application never stood a chance. I have only expressed continuing curiosity as to what makes this application for a zoning variance so different from all other that it draws out such vitriol and extreme opposition - much of which coming from people who don't stand to be affected.
M OKeef February 16, 2012 at 12:06 PM
Anyone who lives in town stands to be affected for two reasons: 1) that area is on a key crossroad in town and so many pass through that area frequently in the course of their normal day so traffic/safety issues affect even residents who don't live within 1/4 mile and 2) a similar situation could happen in any other established neighborhood with larger properties in town if a precedent were set. Can't say I'd like to find out my neighbor sold their house and surreptitiously it was going to be turned into an oversized cultural center and disrupt my neighborhood on a regular basis. Also hurts neighboring property values; who would welcome that?
Cham February 16, 2012 at 12:46 PM
Hedley, you *know* what makes this application so different from all the others. Also, I wonder why the Chai Center moved from its original location years ago across from Millburn High School on Millburn Avenue? Or were they kicked out of that location as well?
CHP February 16, 2012 at 03:14 PM
Cham, maybe you should play the Jewish card. Oh wait, that is all you do. You have not put forth one substantive comment regarding zoning. If you were to go to any legitimate planner and ask them to design a proper HOW with 16000 usable square feet, a play ground for children, a real parking lot with drop off zones and room that allows for reasonable expansion, necessary green space to make it look attractive, I guarantee he would say you need at least three acres if not more. Not to mention, why would the rabbi want to have a facility that has a infrastructure that is inferior and undersized from day one? The cost if that property in insignificant if it does not meet the requirements of the facility. Hence the 3 acre minimum.
Leslie February 16, 2012 at 03:35 PM
How would the existence of a 3-acre lot address this concern? There would still be the same increase in traffic if the lot were larger. I understand your worry, but it is not consistent with the zoning reg that is being enforced, which only governs the size of the lot and not the number of cars that enter and leave.
Hedley February 16, 2012 at 03:44 PM
Even if the property was 3 acres, the opposition would be the same. The 3-acre requirement is simply a pretense. And yes, I "know" what makes this application different. All it takes is a few idiots to shout references to Hitler to prove that.
Leslie February 16, 2012 at 03:46 PM
But the traffic issue has nothing to do with the lot size. If the lot were larger, you would have all the same problems and would have no basis to stop the HOW from opening.
CHP February 16, 2012 at 04:28 PM
If the center had three acres there would be a new HOW standing there right now not a big legal bill. People could protest it all they want it but it would have been built either way. Traffic conflicts could have been worked out. Like no left turn out of the lot and no left turn into the lot for example. If the lot was of proper size the parking would not impact public streets or have the redneck parking on the front lawn. It amazing how a 3 acre site cures all these issues. Maybe our forefathers were correct in their desgin of the master plan.
Cham February 17, 2012 at 12:55 PM
I would like to know what lot in MSH has 3 acres? From what I understand, the Chai Center moved from their previous Millburn Avenue location because they were under the impression that the Jefferson Avenue properties would better meet the zoning requirements, right?
MarkDS February 17, 2012 at 01:11 PM
The arguments for the appeal are coalescing.
Cham February 19, 2012 at 08:07 PM
CHP, how disgusting that you talk about "the Jewish card" so cavalierly. As if anti-Semitism is something to casually joke about.


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