By John Burton
LONG BRANCH – A proposal before the Zoning Board to construct a Jewish synagogue on a long empty West End property was met with disapproval by area residents and business owners.
Phyllis Bermensolo came to the meeting on Monday, June 11, and listened intently while sitting through the lengthy application hearing to construct a synagogue on Ocean Avenue.
Bermensolo said she was here to show her support for the neighborhood businesses.
“It wouldn’t matter to me what kind of religious congregation it is,” Bermensolo said. “It’s not good for the flavor of the West End shopping community.”
Bermensolo, who said she has lived in the city all her life and in the neighborhood for 35 years, wasn’t alone in her view of the proposal. She joined a full room of local business owners, property owners and residents who have reservations and concerns about the project.
Menachem Learning Institute, operating as Chabad of The Shore, is seeking a use variance and other approvals to construct a 21,321 square foot, two-story synagogue with a roughly 200-seat sanctuary and a multipurpose room on a three-quarter acre property on Ocean Avenue, between Brighton Avenue and West End Court.
The location was previously a movie theater and has been vacant now for about 20 years. The property also has another empty structure which had housed a deli and upstairs apartments, according to Steven J. Tripp, the lawyer representing the applicant.
The synagogue and its congregation currently hold Orthodox Jewish religious services and educational and cultural programs in an office complex at 620 Ocean Ave. It has been there for about four years, said Rabbi Laibel Schapiro.
The congregation has been looking for an appropriate location for about that long that could accommodate its needs and offer adequate parking, Schapiro told the zoning board.
Most of the members, Schapiro explained, are from the immediate area with about 50 percent of them walking to the location. The remainder, he said, are from surrounding towns.
The proposed site, long unused, has become a sort of unofficial public parking lot, “whether legally or not,” as Tripp described it, for customers and diners of the neighborhood’s shops and restaurants.
Available parking appears to be one of the concerns for West End businesses, whose owners filled the hall.
The West End Business Association, an unincorporated and loose confederation of business and property owners, hired its own attorney, Ron Gasiorowski of Red Bank, to contest the application.
Chabad of the Shore would need the zoning board to grant it a use variance; houses of worship are not a permitted use in the commercially zoned area.
“The issue is it’s not a permitted use,” Gasiorowski said afterwards, explaining his clients’ objections.
During a break, William Johnson, co-owner of a Brighton Avenue pizzeria, said, “Our biggest concern is parking. The parking is already bad.”
“The issue is synergy,” said Martin Grubman. He owns 57-61 Brighton Ave., a retail and residential building that, along with a number of other buildings, was destroyed by fire in February, and is in the process of trying to rebuild.
“The thing that drives me crazy about the whole proposal,” Grubman continued, “is it’s splitting the retail district.” He contended that locating the synagogue at the site would separate two blocks of businesses, and would create a jarring incongruity for the area.
“If it didn’t affect the retail district, I couldn’t care less,” Grubman insisted.
Through his cross examination of the rabbi, Gasiorowski contended the congregation in its current location was in violation of city zoning laws by holding religious services in a commercial zone. That left some board members troubled.
“We’ve been down this road before,” Board Chairwoman Terry Janeczek said.
Janeczek told Schapiro and Tripp that some years back the board granted similar approval to another synagogue. “We’ve had nothing but people berating us,” since then, because of overflow parking issues for the neighbors. “People who’ve lived there 15-20 years can’t park,” Janeczek said.
Tripp pointed out there is case law for boards to grant latitude for projects the courts have deemed as inherently beneficial uses, such as this.
“We are building a facility in West End because we want to be part of the community,” Schapiro told the board. “Our parking lot will be open all the time,” and could be made available for the public and businesses when not in use by the synagogue.
“They would certainly be willing to work out an agreement with the city,” Tripp offered.
Bermensolo said the site should remain retail, which would support a neighborhood that has been struggling to compete with the upscale Pier Village development and the tough recession. “I feel we have to be fair to those people who have stuck with the city,” she said.
The board is expected to again hear this application on Sept. 10.