The Chai Center of Millburn-Short Hills to Present its Re-Drafted Plans at Millburn Zoning Board Meeting Tonight, May 2nd
Monday, May 2, 2011 • 10:41am
MILLBURN, NJ - There has been a great deal of controversy surrounding the plans of the Chai Center of Millburn-Short Hills to construct a 16,350 sq. ft. Synagogue on the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Short Hills Road. The proposed structure has left many Short Hills residents wanting to take action.
But the debate is complicated. On the one hand, many of the residents of Short Hills, particularly members of the Concerned Neighborhood Association of Millburn Township, Inc. (also known as The Association or Save Millburn), feel that the Chai Center has violated zoning laws and taken taxpayer money by way of excused fines. On the other hand, the Chai Center feels that it has been both compliant and accommodating.
The argument has been long and drawn out. According to Rabbi Mendel Bogomilsky, they have been hearing that they have been “violating the law for 16 years.”
Mike Becker, responsible for Save Millburn communications, is clear that this is “a real estate issue, not a religious issue.” According to Mr. Becker, the main concern is that the property on which the center sits is not large enough. Because of legislation passed in 2000, a house of worship can be established in a residential area and Millburn zoning requires that it is built on a lot of at least three acres.
On the Save Millburn site, a YouTube commercial video is posted which is meant to highlight what they say is a “significant negative impact” that this development will have on residents. This alleged negative impact was summarized by a suit brought against Rabbi Bogomilsky, his wife, Rivkha Bogomilsky, and the Chai Center by the Township of Millburn in 2009: “A direct and proximate result of the subject property being undersized is that adjoining single-family homes are exposed to manifestations of an institutional use that are antithetical to the peace and quiet of a single-family residential neighborhood, including local streets being congested with parked vehicles and vehicular traffic when religious services and other congregate activities are being conducted . . .”
When the Bogomilskys filed a countersuit, claiming that the town was impinging on the rights of its residents to gather to pray, the Town agreed to reach a settlement in which the Town forgave $730,000 in fines, fines that the Rabbi categorizes as “bogus.” The Rabbi explained that the fine was calculated at $1000 per week since 1995 for using an addition without a Certificate of Occupancy. These fines were reduced to $1000 in the settlement.
Most recently, The Association made a statement to be entered into public record during the Millburn Township Committee meeting on April 20th. The statement was meant to challenge the Township Committee to take action against what they categorize as abusive behavior on the part of the Chai Center. Their call to action to the Mayor and the Committee is that, “the settlement be revoked by the Town and the substantial fines be reinstated.”
Rabbi Bogomilsky thinks that the statement, “adds insult to injury.” The Rabbi feels very strongly about the fact that the Township Committee cannot legally interfere with the Zoning Board’s decision-making. He, therefore, feels that it is unfair for The Association to bring the case before the Committee.
One of the complaints on behalf of The Association is that the Chai Center allegedly continues to deliberately delay the process by postponing meetings. The Rabbi, on the other hand, thinks it is the “shenanigans” of the opposition that continue to delay the process. From his perspective the opposition has dragged out the process with too many questions such as the time he was questioned for six hours during a hearing meeting. He claims that among others, Attorney John Lamb, who is representing those opposed to the project, often reschedules meetings to suit his own schedule. This then delays the meetings.
Monday and Tuesday may mark a move forward for each side of the argument. Monday is the Zoning Board of Adjustment meeting during which the Chai Center is to present its newly drafted plans. Having asked the Zoning Board to adjourn the last meeting on March 28th in order to revise its plans, many are anxiously awaiting this meeting. The new plans should address the height of the structure and the buffer between the Synagogue’s parking and the neighbors’ property.
Tuesday is the Township Committee meeting. The Association is awaiting this meeting to hear the response from Mayor Haimoff who heard their statement but could offer no response other than to say that she would bring it before the appropriate parties. They also anticipate a response from the Chai Center.
But Rabbi Bogomilsky said that they have not decided whether or not to attend the meeting. Because the Center’s case is being heard before the Zoning Board, the Township Committee has no legal ability to influence the case one way or another. He does not know whether they should appear before the Committee at all and dignify the public statement with a response.
However, the Rabbi does feel that it is important to share with the community that the Committee and the Township’s elected officials “have a duty to the entire town.” The Rabbi expressed disappointment in the Mayor’s response to the statement issued by The Association since she did not say that the case between the Center and the Town had already been settled and that the Center was appearing before the Zoning Board. He said her failure to do so may reflect a lack of impartiality on her part. According to Rabbi Bogomilsky, elected officials also have a duty to tell the truth and to “diffuse tension” instead of inciting it.