By John Burton
LONG BRANCH – Members of the city Zoning Board of Adjustment expressed skepticism during a hearing for a proposed West End synagogue when the congregation’s rabbi stressed that membership would remain at a fixed number.
Rabbi Laibel Schapiro told the board it was his and the administration’s intention to contain Chabad of the Shore to about 200 members if permitted to relocate the synagogue to the proposed Ocean Avenue site between Brighton Avenue and West End Court.
“I have to tell you I find that so improbable,” Zoning Board Chairwoman Terry Janeczek told Schapiro. “I can’t believe in my wildest imagination you will keep to that in your heart.”
“We have to follow the (city) code,” regulating occupancy, should the application get approval, Schapiro responded.
Schapiro also faced cross-examination from Thomas J. Hirsch, a lawyer representing about eight West End property and business owners who are opposed to the proposal.
Hirsch reminded Schapiro that when he testified during a hearing in June he said was hoping to increase his numbers.
The number of those who would be attending the synagogue’s services, educational programs and events and the parking necessary to accommodate them is, in part, at the heart of what concerns business and property owners.
The issue will again be discussed Jan. 14, when the board will again consider the application.
When the board first heard the application in June, the chambers were filled with business owners and area residents who detailed their worries about having a house of worship in that location. The Chabad of the Shore is looking to construct an approximately 21,321-square-foot, two-story synagogue on three-quarters of an acre on Ocean Avenue, replacing a long vacant movie theater destroyed by a fire about 20 years ago. The synagogue would have a 200-seat sanctuary, multipurpose room, classrooms and office space.
The area is zoned commercially and the synagogue would need the board to grant a use variance as a non-permitted use.
“While this is a beneficial use,” Hirsch said following the lengthy hearing on Monday, Sept. 24, “it is in opposition to the master plan.”
The location for many years has been used as an informal public parking lot by those visiting shops and restaurants in the city’s West End section. The objectors worry about the possible impact on their customers and an increase in traffic at the location for Saturday services.
“It’s really about disrupting the zone and its intended use,” Hirsch said.
But Schapiro continued to stress his intention of limiting the congregation’s size, and the fact that many live in the area and walk to services.
The property would accommodate 51 parking spaces, more than city ordinance would require, said John Rae, the project’s traffic engineer. Rae also told the board concerns over traffic were a non-starter because the synagogue would add only a very small number to what can be a reasonably busy intersection at Brighton and Ocean avenues. He contended that many of the permitted uses – retail, restaurants, doctors’ offices – would have a greater impact on traffic and parking.
Schapiro and Rae said the synagogue would be willing to allow the parking lot to be used by the public when it was not in use by the congregation.
For some on the board a troubling revelation was that the synagogue’s current location, in converted office space at 620-622 Ocean Ave., violated city codes.
When pressed on it, the rabbi acknowledged, “We’re not following the (city) code. That’s why we’re here.”
Before adjourning the hearing until January, Chairwoman Janeczek said she heard rumblings from audience members during a break that the board had made up its mind. “I really take great offense to that,” she said. “There is not one of us here who is taking this lightly.”