MILLBURN, NJ - Over 70 residents, many part of an advocacy group called 'Save Millburn', came together on Wednesday night at the Bauer Center to discuss their concerns about allowing zoning exceptions in Millburn which would permit a 16,350 sq. ft. synagogue to be built on the corner of Jefferson Ave. and Short Hills Road.
To give some history on the matter, Rabbi Mendel Bogomilsky requested a special variance from the Millburn Zoning Board a few months ago so as to construct a new building for the Chai Center for Living Judaism, which he owns, on 1 and 7 Jefferson Ave. However, according to Save Millburn advocates, the variances that Bogomilsky is asking for do not fit within the town's Master Plan. The group's Web site says the proposed synagogue is too high, too wide, too close to neighboring properties and that without a major variance, would in fact be illegal.
So at Monday's meeting, Kevin Coakley, a lawyer who will be representing Save Millburn at the Millburn Zoning Board meeting when the matter is heard before the Board on Monday night, spoke of the issue and answered some questions from the neighbors. He said that the Chai Center has requested use variances for a house of worship with a seating capacity of about 144 people on the property. The facility would also include a large social room, numerous meeting rooms and a large institutional kitchen. He continued, saying that there are 50 parking spaces planned to be built on the site and that the buffers requested have been reduced significantly from what the ordinance calls for.
"This case essentially boils down to whether or not the application will satisfy… the negative criteria within the Master Plan," Coakley said. He said that the Zoning Board must consider the overall use of the property against the variances sought, the impact on the community, the neighborhood and the zone plan. "It's the obligation of the applicant to demonstrate that there are no substantial detriments to those types of criteria," Coakley said. "These variances are not regularly granted. In fact they're pretty rare in New Jersey," he added.
Members of the advocacy group then voiced their opinions against the application. One member was confused as to how Millburn could even consider building a synagogue when the applicant needs an additional third of an acre to build the structure on the 1.88 acre lot. Another advocacy member asked how they can be involved with the process, aside from being part of Save Millburn. Coakley said that it was in the best interests of these residents to go the Zoning Board meetings where the issue will be heard and voice their opinions.
Rabbi Bogomilsky then spoke at the meeting. He said that there were a number of inaccuracies with Coakley's statements. Bogomilsky argued that the zone is one of permitted use which allows schools and houses of worship to exist in the zone. Coakley responded saying that schools and houses of worship are conditional uses in the zone, are only permitted uses if they meet the conditions of the zone, and that's why in this case, use variances are necessary.
Bogomilsky said that the reason he is requesting a synagogue to be built is "because there are people in town that need a place to pray." He said that Millburn Township had requested the Chai Center to build a place of worship and compelled them to being forth an application. He said that if no application was presented then the town would take legal steps to stop people from worshipping at the property as it currently exists.
An advocate then asked Bogomilsky why he chose to request that his synagogue to be built on Jefferson Ave. when the town has offered him the option of building such a place on Millburn Avenue. "That's news to me," replied Bogomilsky. No one has ever approached us with a better location. Where do you want us to be?"
Another issue presented at the meeting was that the Chai Center, if constructed on Jefferson Ave., would be in a busy traffic center between Millburn Middle School and Greenwood Gardens. This would cause traffic flow problems in an already crowded area, according to advocates. However, Bogomilsky refuted this point, saying that the busiest hours for the Chai Center would be Saturday mornings and Jewish Holidays when the public schools are closed. He continued saying that during the weekdays there would most likely only be as many as ten cars in the parking lot at the Center.
One complaint made by a member, which stirred up some heated debate, was that a lawyer who represents the Chai Center was quoted in several newspapers saying that the Save Millburn advocates were anti-Semitic and that is one of the reasons they do not want a synagogue to be built on this property. "I oppose it, I hate it, it's horrible and I hate it," an advocate said. Advocates said that Bogomilsky should have issued a retraction regarding what his lawyer said.
Afterwards more controversy began, this time from architect Avi Brender who was in favor of the application, as he verbally attacked the Save Millburn group. "Who are you saving Millburn from?," he said. "If this was a black organization…you wouldn't dare call it [the name of] your group. Change your name. Who are you saving Millburn from?" he stressed.
Bob Sanna, the advocacy member who organized the meeting, then calmed the audience members down who began shouting at Brender in reaction to his comments. Sanna said that this was not a time for debate, but rather a chance to come together and gather information on a very controversial topic.