New plans offer next chapter in shul zoning hearings
Only acreage issue remains; hearings continue to drag on
Site engineer David Fantina testified at the May 2 hearing before the Millburn Township Zoning Board regarding new plans submitted by the Chai Center for a synagogue at Jefferson Road and Old Short Hills Road in Short Hills. Photo by Johanna Ginsberg
May 4, 2011
The Chai Center Shul in Short Hills submitted new plans to the Millburn Township Zoning Board of Adjustment on April 20. Its plans for the adjoining properties at 1 and 7 Jefferson Road in Short Hills have been the focus of protracted hearings before the board that have been ongoing since April 2010.
The new plans bring the proposed building into compliance with all but one of the violations previously charged, according to testimony given by zoning officer Eileen Davitt at the latest board hearing, held at Millburn Town Hall on May 2.
With the new plans, only one variance is required. The township requires that all houses of worship be built on not less than three acres. At 1.815 acres, the Chai Center property falls short of this requirement.
The hearings began more than a year ago, and a core group of about 40 committed residents both opposed and in favor of the Chai Center’s plans continues to attend the hearings, held approximately once each month.
Those opposed include Norman Israel, a member of Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, who called the plans submitted by the Chai Center’s Rabbi Mendel Bogomilsky “a travesty.”
Others, like Mike Becker, view the hearings, and the stakeholders’ positions, as a game to be played. Commenting on the submission of the new plans, he said, “That’s the game. You come in and demand a lot, but at the end you show your flexibility.”
The new plans drop the proposed building’s roof height from 36 to 32 feet and increase the buffers around the building to bring it into compliance with township ordinances.
At the May 2 hearing, the board agreed to rehear testimony, based on the new plans, from the engineer, architect, and planner. The first two testified at the May 2 hearing.
During testimony from site engineer David Fantina, there was some discussion about whether the new 40-foot setback is sufficient, given neighboring properties’ setbacks of over 100 feet. There was also debate about whether the site’s proposed parking lot is an “accessory use” under the ordinance.
There was some drama when attorney Kevin Coakley, representing those opposed to the project, objected that “every time a witness is told to answer a question that is difficult, we are told there’s a different witness to question.” Zoning board chair Joseph Steinberg responded, “That’s because you are asking the wrong person the question.”
There was some heated argument around this issue, with corresponding mumbled outrage coming from the audience and at least one person muttering, “This is a joke.”
In the midst of the parking lot discussion, Norman Israel stood up and, with raised hand, said, “May I ask a question?” Steinberg responded, “No,” and Israel sat down, saying, “I didn’t think so.”
By law, residents are not permitted to make statements during the proceedings.
Meanwhile, opponents of the Chai Center have issued a statement asking the Township Committee to reinstate fines totaling $499,000 that were forgiven as part of a 2009 agreement for Chai Center to go before the zoning board. Opponents claim that instead of applying for variances associated with expanding the existing building, Chai Center instead applied for variances associated with demolishing the building and building a new one. That claim was scheduled to be heard separately, at a town meeting on Tuesday, May 3, after this paper went to print.
Bogomilsky’s attorneys wrote in response that “We find this somewhat ironic as the amendments are being proposed to specifically address concerns raised by the association and other objectors.”
The zoning board hearing was adjourned until June 27.
There has been frustration on both sides over how long the case has taken. Before the hearing, in an anteroom, one resident, discussing recent world events with some peers, said — referring to Osama bin Laden’s killing — “If he was captured, it would be an even longer case than this one against the Chai Center.”
Bogomilsky said he is as eager as everyone else to move forward and that he is staying optimistic, saying, “We’d like to have begun construction already!”