After nearly two years of sometime acrimonious debate and heated public hearings, the Millburn Township Zoning Board of Adjustment denied the Chai Center’s bid to build a 16,350-square-foot structure on the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Old Short Hills Road.
Seven members of the nine-member board voted against the main variance needed to build the synagogue — with one recusing himself — in a decision announced at a Feb. 13 hearing at Millburn High School that lasted until almost one o’clock Monday morning.
The only board member to vote against denying the variance was Thomas Singer. Earlier in the evening, board member Roger Manshel recused himself from the case and did not participate in the deliberations or the vote.
Zoning board chair Joseph Steinberg called it “the most complicated case I have ever been involved with as volunteer chair of this board.”
The Chai Center of Millburn/Short Hills had originally applied for four variances but amended the design and application during the years-long proceeding; the latest application was for just one variance: to build a house of worship on 1.8 acres, rather than the three acres required by the zoning ordinance. Center director Rabbi Mendel Bogomilsky and his wife, Rivkah, have been holding Shabbat services at their house at 1 Jefferson Ave. since 2005. Rabbi Bogomilsky, although not affiliated with the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, the New Jersey flagship of the Brooklyn-based Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters, is Lubavitch-trained.
Later, the application was amended further to include variances to build with less than the front-yard setbacks required on both Jefferson Avenue and Old Short Hills Road, as requested by the board.
Although the board’s denial of the three-acre variance effectively ended the bid, board members voted on each of the remaining variances as well “because the parties deserve to know,” reasoned Steinberg.
The vote to deny the site plan was unanimous. On the front yard setbacks on Old Short Hills Road, Steinberg and Singer voted to grant the variance; everyone else voted against. The vote to deny a Jefferson Avenue setback variance was unanimously denied, as was a parking variance.
Steinberg outlined the board’s objections during the public deliberations, ultimately declaring that the “lot is too small” for the structure proposed by Bogomilsky.
Steinberg said he was also swayed by opponents who questioned why “a building of this size and this expense [is] being built. It is not because of the reasonable likelihood that the building will remain as a very, very small congregation.”
Bogomilsky said he wasn’t sure about what steps, if any, he would take next.
“We’re conferring with our lawyers right now to figure out what to do next,” he told NJJN. “One thing I’m sure of: We will continue davening and doing all our activities. We were never in violation of any zoning code, and especially now, we are not going to be held to any restrictions. Exactly what we’ll do next, I don’t know.”
He added, “We’re disappointed, of course. We spent a lot of time, effort, and energy and it would have been an opportunity for us and the town to move forward together.”
Although Bogomilsky has in the past questioned the township’s motives, he declined to this time.
“I can’t ascribe motives to someone else,” he said. “I think they treated this like any other zoning case.”
David Schraeder, a spokesman for the Chai Center, offered a positive spin to the outcome.
“We’re disappointed, obviously, that we did not get approval here, and we’ll think our options over,” he said. “The great thing is that what happened here tonight was that it was clear from the members of the opposition and member of the Zoning Board that they are welcome to the idea of the Chai Center having a location in town — and that, in and of itself, is a pretty big victory because before, there was complete opposition at all to us being in the town, and now, at least there’s a discussion about finding an appropriate-sized lot for us to exist.”
Before the deliberations began, nearly 50 people offered comments in a tone strikingly different from raucous earlier hearings that were marked by an openly hostile and often accusatory atmosphere.
By contrast, audience members at the Feb. 13 hearing did not wear partisan buttons or pass out literature. There were almost no outbursts; two rounds of applause were quickly cut off by Steinberg.
Many of those who spoke said they opposed the Chai Center’s current plans but welcomed the congregation and its rabbi at a more “appropriate” location.
“I’m happy to have the rabbi here as a neighbor — a residential neighbor,” said Alec Haverstick, who lives on nearby Madison Terrace. “I’m not happy to have a house of worship that I didn’t plan on being there after I moved here after 35 years.”
Aryeh Liwschitz, an organizer of the opposition group Save Millburn, focused on the size of the congregation.
“Congregations don’t shrink. They grow. And a congregation such as this is completely open-ended. The problems follow from that,” he said.
As they have throughout the process, other opponents cited the potential for increased traffic.
Supporters of the Chai Center enumerated the benefits they said the synagogue would bring to the town.
Richard Flaks of Short Hills said he lived in Orthodox Jewish communities in “seven major cities on three continents.”
“All those communities were as beautiful as, if not more beautiful than, Short Hills,” he said. “And with the Orthodox Jewish community there was far from a downward slide. This is not only about zoning but also about our right to practice our religion the way we want.”
Mitchell Halpern of Short Hills addressed the traffic issue. “We’re talking about inconsequential amounts of traffic for a few short periods during the year,” he said. “Will you let that get in the way of our religious freedom?”
But some supporters were clearly frustrated.
“There have been multiple variances for other houses of worship in town,” said Harvey Berger. “Ours is the only house of worship that conforms to the buffer ordinance. Few houses of worship provide the number of parking spaces required in the ordinance. To treat us differently — the very character of the town is called into question by those who say the Chai Center is treated differently.”
In his public comments, Mike Becker, who opposed the Chai Center, said he had attended every meeting.
“I think it’s the right decision,” he told a reporter. “They sounded absolutely fair. I think they considered every aspect of it. I think the right thing happened.”