Court ‘vindicates’ synagogue in Millburn zoning fight
Judge says township violated federal law in denying Chai Center
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
An Essex County Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the Chai Center Shul at Short Hills, sending the Orthodox synagogue’s expansion plans back to the Millburn Township Zoning Board of Adjustment for re-adjudication.
The May 31 decision by the Hon. Sebastian Lombardi was a victory for officials of the synagogue, who claimed that the township's rejection of their building plans violated federal statutes protecting religious institutions.
The judge essentially accepted the synagogue’s appeal, ruling that township ordinances related to lot size and parking were being unequally applied to a house of worship.
He also ruled that the township and Save Millburn — a citizens group that objected to the synagogue’s building plans — would be liable for the synagogue’s attorney fees.
“After battling for so many years, the judge's ruling on Friday was a wonderful moment of vindication for us,” Rivkie Bogomilsky, whose husband Mendel is the rabbi of the Chai Center, said on Monday following the ruling. “I only hope that the township officials will recognize the opportunity created and finally take a leadership role to work with all of its citizens.”
Mitchell Halpern, a Chai Center supporter along with his wife Robin, called the ruling “wonderful.”
“Saturday morning was a very joyous Shabbos for us,” he said. “We had a relatively big crowd, and after all the fighting and emotions, we are all just very happy.”
Robin added, “Our rabbi has been vindicated. The town has been making it seem like he was breaking the law; but actually, the town has been breaking the law.”
In addition, the Department of Justice has initiated an investigation into the town’s handling of land use issues related to the synagogue’s years-long effort to win approval to build a 16,350-square-foot structure on the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Old Short Hills Road.
“We were informed by the DOJ of the investigation in April,” said Philip Pfeffer, an attorney for the Chai Center. “We were quite pleased when we learned of the investigation as the federal government would now put Millburn's discriminatory actions and zoning ordinance under a microscope.”
Like the Superior Court ruling, a DOJ investigation may well turn on interpretations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law commonly referred to as RLUIPA. According to the law, land use regulations may not treat religious institutions “on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution.’”
In denying the Chai Center’s plans, the zoning board maintained that the house of worship needed to be built on least three acres of land, and to include a parking area that provided for at least one spot for every three seats. Chai Center lawyers countered that the Millburn zoning ordinance set more lenient standards for schools. “Because the zoning ordinance treated houses of worship on less than equal terms than schools, the town's zoning ordinance violated the Equal Terms provision of RLUIPA,” said Eliot Ostrove, another attorney for the Chai Center.
Officials of Save Millburn – also known as the Concerned Neighborhood Association of Millburn – urged the township to appeal the latest ruling.
In equating the synagogue with a school, the court “both misapplied existing law and, in an apparent attempt to make new law, not normally the province of the judiciary, effectively usurped the authority of local government to which the power to effect zoning ordinances is specifically granted,” wrote Alec Haverstick of Short Hills, a Save Millburn spokesperson, in an email to NJJN. “We trust Milburn township will appeal the ruling and we intend to join them in so doing. We believe that the appellate system will reverse the decision of the lower court on numerous grounds.”