Although the Feb. 13 meeting of the Millburn Zoning Board of Adjustment is scheduled to be the “final hearing” on the Chai Center’s bid to build a new synagogue in Millburn, neither side is holding its breath.
The effort by Rabbi Mendel Bogomilsky and his wife Rivkah to build a 16,000-square-foot building on a combined 1.8-acre lot on Jefferson Avenue has been going on at least since 2005, and their dispute with the township over the services held in their home has lasted a decade or more.
When the Board of Adjustment last met, on Jan. 30, it expected to hear public comment on the center’s request for variances. But after lengthy testimony from the rabbi, a neighbor, and the town planner, the dozens of opponents and proponents were told they would have to wait until next time.
The Bogomilskys submitted a building permit application to build an addition onto their property in 2005, and have been seeking zoning variances to build their synagogue since 2009, in accordance with a settlement agreement entered into with the town.
Among other requirements, the township ordinance requires a house of worship to be built on a lot of three acres or more. The Chai Center counters that its plans have been brought into compliance with township requirements, and that the question of lot size is being selectively enforced to exclude the Chai Center’s expansion plans.
Opponents of the project, organized as Save Millburn, have issued a series of complaints at zoning meetings in the years since, including objections to the project’s size and concerns about parking, lighting, and traffic.
“The structure would be too big, too high, too wide, too close to neighbors, and without a major variance, would not be legal,” the organization asserts on its website. “This is not a neighborhood story or a religious issue but a fairness issue. If zoning calls for three acres to build a large house of worship or any other structure this size, why should an exception be made [sic].”
At public hearings and in private conversations, meanwhile, some center supporters say neighbors and officials are uncomfortable with the idea of an Orthodox synagogue in the neighborhood.
The Bogomilskys are affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.
But the Bogomilskys and their allies have long claimed that beyond the hearing rooms, the township has acted in bad faith. They have produced materials documenting police surveillance, spot inspections during holy days, and what they call excessive legal action.
In a brief submitted in March 2010 to the Superior Court of New Jersey, Mendel Bogomilsky describes township documents establishing that the police conducted surveillance at his home on Jefferson Avenue, where services are also held. According to these records, the police counted how many cars were going in and out of the property, took down visitors’ license plate numbers, and ran criminal background checks on visitors.
The Bogomilskys also allege that on Yom Kippur in 1995, housing inspectors came to their home to see if there were any violations.
And in a lawsuit filed by the township in November 2009, shortly after reaching a settlement agreement with the Chai Center, it claimed that the center violated a July 2009 agreement by failing to submit a variance application by the agreed-upon date, and by having too many people coming for prayer services. The suit sought to close the operation down — in what the Bogomilskys and their supporters say is a violation of their right of assembly.
Millburn Township officials directed all requests for comment to its attorney, Michael Kates. Kates did not return calls seeking comment before NJ Jewish News went to press on Feb. 7.
The Community Relations Committee of MetroWest and Central New Jersey is examining the nature of the township’s responses to the Chai Center’s applications for zoning and other variances over the years.
CRC chair David Lentz emphasized that the CRC is taking no sides on the issue, and that there are Jews on both sides. He said he is neutral on the outcome of the center’s bid for variances before the Millburn Zoning Board of Adjustment, and is only interested in the fairness of the proceedings.
“When an individual temple is taking measures to get a zoning variance, it doesn’t raise concerns from the community at large,” Lentz said. “Sure, some members of the Jewish community may oppose the expansion, and some will support it. It’s not for us as to say they should or shouldn’t receive a variance — as long as everyone is treated fairly and properly.”
The CRC expects to have a representative at the next hearing.