Rabbi, engineer press case for center
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
A Chabad rabbi hoping to build a synagogue in Short Hills concluded his testimony before a Millburn Township zoning hearing, in the third installment of a rancorous public debate over the project.
Meeting at Millburn High School on July 26, the Milburn Township Zoning Board of Adjustment heard testimony from Rabbi Mendel Bogomilsky and David Fantina, a civil engineer who prepared plans for what Bogomilsky hopes will be a 16,000-square-foot building on its property at 1 Jefferson Avenue in Short Hills.
As at previous hearings, the discussion revolved around the variances and waivers required for the Chai Center of Millburn/Short Hills.
Those opposed, who appeared to outnumber supporters among the 60 spectators, continue to focus on traffic hazards, inadequate parking, and insufficient sidewalks. Supporters insist the synagogue is an appropriate structure for the neighborhood and complain that the township continues to throw up obstacles to its construction.
Attendance was a fraction of what it had been at previous meetings, which had been moved to the high school from the Hartshorn School to accommodate the crowds. In the stuffy, poorly lit auditorium with inadequate acoustics, the audience dropped by at least half after a break.
The July 26 hearing reviewed the ways in which the plans do not comply with current zoning laws, which require adequate parking and that houses of worship be built on properties of three-acres or more.
Three major issues arose: the ability of emergency vehicles to turn around in a full parking lot; whether or not a stream flowing through the property requires an environmental impact study or other measures; and whether the lighting outside the building will be disruptive to neighbors and violate town ordinances.
Supporters criticized attorneys opposing the construction for asking “irrelevant” questions. Referring to the requirement that a house of worship be built on no less than three acres, Edward Mazer, a Chai Center member and township resident, said, “There are very few three-acre properties in the township.”
Mazer also referred to a July 22 article in The Millburn Item, in which Bogomilsky alleged that the township interfered in earlier plans by the rabbi to purchase a three-acre property. In the same article, Mayor Thomas McDermott denied that he blocked any previous purchases.
Bogomilsky also told The Item that if the Chai Center zoning application is denied, he may seek federal relief under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA, which prevents municipalities from enforcing land-use regulations that impose a “substantial burden” on religious groups.
One opponent, who identified himself as an owner of a neighboring property, told NJ Jewish News that for him, it’s all about aesthetics, not traffic.
“This is a big building in a residential area,” he said. “Sixteen thousand square feet — it’s an enormous building. It’s like a medical center. My concern is that it won’t blend in.”
The next hearing date is scheduled for Aug. 23; it will feature testimony from the third witness, the traffic engineer. The hearings are expected to continue into the fall.