Opponents to appeal Chabad approval

Friday, December 19, 2008 5:41 AM EST
By Rachael Scarborough King Register Staff

GUILFORD — The years-long debate over Chabad of the Shoreline’s plan for a new synagogue on Goose Lane is finished — at least as far as the Planning and Zoning Commission is concerned.

But a legal battle over the commission’s approval of the plan Wednesday night appears inevitable, as one lawsuit is already under way and opponents are planning to appeal the decision.

Two neighbors of the 181 Goose Lane site, Donna Criscenzo and Sherrye McDonald, filed a lawsuit this summer seeking to enforce a covenant from the 1947 sale of the property limiting its use to residential or agricultural. The suit is pending.

Criscenzo said Thursday that an attorney for the Committee to Save Goose Lane, a group opposing the project, has also started work on an appeal of the commission’s vote.

The PZC split on the issue Wednesday, voting 4-3 to approve Chabad’s application to build a 13,700-square-foot religious facility with a day care center. Chairwoman Shirley Girioni and Commissioners Robert Richard, Jonathan Bishop and Ray Bower voted to grant a special permit for the building. David North, David Grigsby and Michael Scott voted against the application.

Commissioner Noel Hanf recused himself at the beginning of the public hearings, as Criscenzo — who operates a medical practice from her home next door to the site — is his physician.

Criscenzo said Thursday she was “disappointed” and “disillusioned” by the vote.

“If it’s so close, then how do you err on the side of an applicant … when the public support isn’t even there?” she said. “I feel that our evidence was not regarded, or was not given the same consideration as theirs, and I think it should have been.”

But Marjorie Shansky, the attorney for Chabad, commended the commission’s decision.

“I was impressed by the depth of deliberations and gratified by the courage and commitment of the commission members to apply the facts to the law,” Shansky said. She declined to comment on the pending lawsuit.

Rabbi Yossi Yaffe of Chabad of the Shoreline said that the group does not yet have a timeline for construction. In addition to the synagogue, the plans include a home for Yaffe and his family on an adjacent lot behind 181 Goose Lane.

“Our step now is to take this to the next level, where we begin our planning to build a building and garnering support,” which will include fundraising, he said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done with the architectural plans, with whatever legal issues that still remain in the way … but we’re going forward with our plans and whatever comes up we’ll deal with.”

People on both sides of the issue packed the meeting Wednesday night for nearly four hours, including 1 1/2 hours of discussion on the motion. Girioni said the commission spent more than 22 hours on public hearings and deliberations.

Several supporters jumped up and hugged each other after the 11:30 p.m. vote, the outcome of which had been unclear until the moment the four commissioners raised their hands. During the deliberations, Richard, Girioni and Bishop expressed their support for the application, while North, Grigsby and Scott said they did not think it met the criteria for the special permit required for a religious facility.

But shortly before voting, Bower said he was still making up his mind about three issues: the impact on the residential neighbors and the character of the area, the intensity of use and the effect on property values. The 1.3-acre lot, which lies near Exit 59 off Interstate 95, is zoned for residential use and is bordered by houses on both residential and commercial parcels.

“I personally don’t think I’ve seen an issue which has been more controversial or personally more difficult for myself or some of my commissioners to make a decision on,” Bower said during the meeting.

Criscenzo said she thought there should have been further discussion before the vote.

“I think that it was pretty clear that they called the vote or called the question when the swing voter had clearly stated that he had a problem with three issues, and they did not discuss more than one of them,” she said.

The inclusion of a condition limiting the number of occupants appeared to sway Bower toward the “yes” side. But other commissioners — on both sides of the outcome — said that they were uncomfortable including requirements that are not applied to other houses of worship.

“I’m just afraid of discrimination here, discrimination against one particular church — I don’t think that’s fair,” Girioni said.

Grigsby, meanwhile, said he thought the number of conditions showed that “the lot is not of a sufficient size and dimension to permit the use and intensity as proposed.”

The most debated of the 12 conditions of approval was the first, which says that no more than 150 people can occupy the building at any time, except for up to 10 days a year when the number increases to 200.

Shansky said she thinks the condition is in line with Chabad’s projections for its use of the building.

“I think there was an earnest effort to give credit to both the applicant and the opposition that was sometimes confused by the hyperbole, exaggeration and free-ranging anxiety of the opposition, where our numbers were at all times definite,” she said.

Yaffe added that he thinks that tensions will dissipate in the future.

“There are no synagogues in the state that get the sort of numbers that people were bringing up, it doesn’t exist, and the Shoreline is not a densely populated Jewish area,” he said. “I feel the irrational fears are going to be seen by all logical, reasonable people as we get under way as just that.”

The commissioners who voted against the plan said they did not think the applicants had been clear in the number of people who would be attending activities at the synagogue. During the public hearing, Shansky said the facility was designed for 100 people to use at a time, but there could be as many as 200 on important holidays a few times a year.

Criscenzo said the conditions will not help, calling them “a sham.”

“It’s in my face, and they can’t make it better and their conditions can’t make it better,” she said.

Other conditions prohibit Chabad or any future owners from renting the building to third parties, ban amplification of music or voices at outdoor events, and require outside lights other than security lights to be off when the building is not in use.

In the motion to approve, commissioners found that Chabad had met the conditions of approval for a special permit, which are: the new use will be in harmony with the neighborhood and the town and will not impair adjacent home values; the building will have adequate fire access; additional traffic will not cause undue hazards or congestion; the lot is large enough for the building and sanitary facilities; and the architectural design does not conflict with nearby properties.

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