After nearly four hours of legalese, including a two-hour testimony from Rabbi Mendel Bogomilsky, no decision was reached at the first Millburn Zoning Board of Adjustment meeting on the proposed synagogue on residential property on Jefferson Avenue. The meeting was cut off at 11 p.m. in the interest of time.
The strongest point of contention was parking, and the opposition's perceived lack of spaces to accommodate the use of the structure. The application requests a variance on parking requirements.
Nearly 200 residents gathered at Harthshorn Elementary School Monday night for the meeting. The crowd was split, with about two-thirds supporting the construction of The Chai Center for Living Judaism and sporting buttons reading "Let My People Pray." The opposition wore red stickers shaped as stop signs that read, "Stop Major Zoning Exceptions." At least half of the crowd petered out as the meeting wore on.
The public did not have an opportunity to raise questions as attorney Richard Lamb was still in the process of his cross-examination when the meeting was adjourned. The board and public will have an opportunity to address the witness at the next meeting. They also will hear from four witnesses who did not have an opportunity to speak Tuesday evening—the architect, engineer, planner and traffic expert working with the synagogue.
The proposal for a 16,350-square-foot structure containing a 144-seat synagogue, library, social room, and several multi-purpose rooms on 1.8 acres of residential property has been met with strong opposition from The Concerned Neighborhood Association of Millburn Township, also known as Save Millburn. The building would replace two single-family homes currently on the adjacent lots.
Kevin Coakley and Lamb, representing neighbors of the property and Save Millburn, cited precedent while arguing that their clients have a right to oppose.
Gail Frasier, attorney for the board, said this was open to interpretation. "I don't believe municipal land use law ever intended for owners to hold an application hostage by withholding their consent," she said.
The application includes requests for a conditional use variance for inherently beneficial use, which normally requires three acres of property. The two lots, when combined, encompass 1.8 acres. There also are variance requests for building height, parking spaces and the size of the buffer.
Rabbi Bogomilsky took the microphone at about 8:30 p.m. He presented computer renderings of the proposed structure, landscaping and floor plans. He defended the small acreage, saying there are only five lots larger than three acres in the entire township.
After he presented the plans, Lamb and Coakley began their cross-examination. Their major sticking point was the lack of parking. It has already presented a problem in the neighborhood on the High Holy Day of Yom Kippur two years in a row. There are police reports noting that on each occasion 47 cars were parked at the site.
Lamb asked the rabbi if he expects the congregation, estimated between 50-100 families, will increase with the construction of the new building.
"No," Bogomilsky replied. "We understand the neighbors are anxious, but these are local people. The vast majority live within walking distance. Our specialty is reaching out to the existing community; it's taken us a long time to get to where we are, and we can't manufacture people out of thin air."
In regards to the social room and the additional spaces in the building, Bogomilsky insisted there will never be more people at the Chai Center than currently attend the worship services hosted in his home on the Jefferson Avenue property. They will not be hosting catered social events other than a brunch that follows services on Saturday afternoons, which is only attended by those who attend services. The rooms will never be used simultaneously.
He also noted the "footprint of the building is not at all unusual for the neighborhood."
Mitchell Halpern, who lives across the street from the synagogue, agrees with the rabbi. "The building will be the same size as the mansion across the street," he said, estimating that the house is nearly 13,000 square feet.
Halpern added that to be questioning the parking issues is "absurd."
"What everyone's missing is that this is an orthodox center," he said. "A lot of people walk. It's only busy two or three days a year, and I would think that on our most religious holidays the neighbors would be supportive."
Bob Sanna, of Save Millburn, said it has nothing to do with supporting or not supporting a religion or even the size of the structure. "It's about the use. The noise, the traffic, lighting and other elements that make it essentially preposterous," he and Coakley said together.
The meeting was halted for about 20 minutes when board member Roger Manshel became ill and needed medical attention. The Millburn-Short Hills Volunteer First Aid Squad attended to Manshel, who did not return to the meeting. He will be able to listen to recordings in order to catch-up before the next meeting.
The next meeting is set for June 21, the next time the Harthshorn Elementary School auditorium is available.