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Many neighbors attended Lakewood Township's Planning Board public hearing on Tuesday night and voiced numerous concerns regarding Sunset Road Sefardic Congregation's Site Plan application.

The Board deliberated considerably, ultimately voting to approve the application, but with significant consideration for the neighbors concerns.

The neighbors are considering challenging the approval in court.

Tonight's hearing was the Board's third contentious hearing on this application.

Curiously, while Attorney Adam Pfeffer Esq. represented to the Board that "the shul is anyways already here in the current building," the Rabbi of the shul admitted to the Board that the proposed Site Plan "will double the size of the existing shul."

The Rabbi also made things more contentious when he testified, "it stinks to live next to a shul."

The revised Site Plan presented to Board at this hearing was for the construction of a proposed two-story synagogue, almost 4,800 sq feet in area. The architectural plans depict a main sanctuary of 2,900 sq feet as well as adjoining 748 sq feet cheder sheni on the first floor, as well as a 1,541 sq feet ezras noshim and 217 sq feet warming kitchen on the second floor.

Designing a sizable "cheder sheni" room next to the main sanctuary is a legal loophole to get away from parking requirements as the Township only requires parking on the main sanctuary room area and not on any "accessory rooms." The neighbors highlighted this issue to the Board. However, the Board responded that their hands were tied.

As such, the 2,900 sq feet main sanctuary room requires 30 parking spaces.

The shul's professionals presented a plan to provide only 2 parking spaces on-site, and to provide the remaining required parking spaces offsite at the shopping center to the southeast of the Sunset Road and James Street intersection.

The application was represented by Attorney Adam Pfeffer Esq. and Engineer Brian Flannery, who indicated that they have an agreement with the owners of the shopping center to utilize some of their parking spaces.

Per the Board Engineer's review, the application required variances for Aggregate Side Yard Setback, maximum Building Coverage, Buffer, and Parking Setback.

Additionally, the revised plans propose the parking lot only 2 feet from the front right-of-way line. This conflicts with most of the proposed Shade Tree and Utility Easement. Therefore, a design waiver is required from proposed street tree spacing since they can only be planted near the property corners.

Importantly, the application also sought a design waiver from providing the required 20 foot buffer on each side. The application sought to provide a 0 foot buffer.

Neighbors retained Teaneck Attorney Jan Meyer Esq. to represent their opposition to the application.

Numerous neighbors spoke up, saying that they have many concerns with the current ad-hoc shul, including substantial illegal parking, trash not being kept in the refuse container, as well as many members smoking close to their property line at all hours of the day and night.

Neighbors also emphasized that aside from just a shared parking plan, they also want to see a buffer plan to address their privacy concerns.

The neighbors also heavily objected to the proposed off-site parking plan, saying that many congregants will park on Sunset Road which is already congested. They added that the shopping center only appears to have unused parking spaces because Torah Umesorah has moved out and no new tenant has yet moved in.

In addition, the neighbors reminded the Board that, at the last hearing, they told the applicant to supply the Board with a shared parking easement which can be recorded in the Ocean County Clerk's Office (so it can be enforced perpetually) and the applicant failed to supply this parking easement.

Mr. Meyer added that the Zoning Board's approval for the shopping center required 250 parking spaces and they did not provide any extras to now share with this shul. Additionally, a substantial number of these spaces have been converted into truck loading areas for NPGS, so the parking lot is actually deficient in parking.

Mr. Meyer added that the shopping center already has a long-term agreement with a nearby Yeshiva to utilize their parking lot, therefore it's not very likely that they have a sufficient number of parking spaces to now share with this shul.

Mr. Meyer presented his Professional Planner Joe Vince.

Mr. Vince testified to the Board that the Township's ordinance specifically reduces the maximum building coverage for shuls from what is permitted for houses. He stated that this suggests that the governing body was specifically concerned with the neighbors very concerns of privacy and breathing space, and accordingly, the Board should not approve the requested variances.

Mr. Vince added that the requested side yard setback variance will also be a detriment to the neighbors.

Importantly, Mr. Vince highlighted that there are c(2) variances being sought in this application, and, with respect to a (c)(2) application, the Supreme Court has stated in Kaufmann v. Planning Bd. for Warren, "no c(2) variance should be granted when merely the purposes of the owner will be advanced. The grant of approval must actually benefit the community in that it represents a better zoning alternative for the property. The focus of a c(2) case, then, will be not on the characteristics of the land that, in light of current zoning requirements, create a "hardship" on the owner warranting a relaxation of standards, but on the characteristics of the land that present an opportunity for improved zoning and planning that will benefit the community."

In other words, the Board can only grant the variances upon a finding that the benefit for the community substantially outweigh any detriments. In this case, the neighboring community have clearly voiced the substantial detriments regarding the application.

Mr. Meyer closed off by saying, "the site simply doesn't fit the proposed Site Plan. The shul can buy any larger property in the area. It's unfair to throw this down the neighbors throats and tell them that if they are unhappy then they should be the ones to move."

Board Attorney John Jackson Esq.  thanked Mr. Vince "for making good arguments and standing his ground despite the hostile environment."

Mr. Pfeffer told the Board that they want an approval on the specific design plan, however, they would agree that there would be no simcha hall, no Kollel or daytime learning, they would ask the congregants not to smoke near the neighbor's doors, ask the Township for no parking signs in front of the neighbors homes, install a fence around the property, and replace as many trees as they can.

Addressing the neighbors substantial concerns, the Board demanded more concessions.

At first, Board Member Yair Stern offered a motion to approve the application with the condition that the applicant revise the plan to provide a 15 foot buffer on each side, and that they submit a parking easement agreement to the Board. That motion did not receive any second so it died.

Board Member Moshe Raitzik then offered a motion to approve the application with the condition that the applicant revise the plan to provide a 20 foot buffer on each side, and add 10 more parking spaces on site. That motion also did not receive any second so it died.

At that point, Chairman Moshe Neiman stated, "I think we need a motion to deny the application and tell the shul to sit down with the neighbors and ask them how can we work this out to your satisfaction." The Board then deliberated considerably.

Mr. Raitzik then offered yet a third motion to table the application and wait for the applicant to revise the plans to show a 20 foot buffer on each side, submit a parking easement agreement to the Board, provide a pedestrian walkway through the shopping center to the road, and perhaps ask the Township to enact a no smoking zone. That motion also did not receive any second so it died.

Board Administrator Ally Morris cautioned the Board that if they table the application and don't vote tonight, the applicant may choose not to revise the plans and then instead argue that they get an automatic denial because the application is open for too long.

Ultimately, Yair Stern offered a new motion to approve the application tonight with the applicant agreeing to revise the plans to show a 20 foot buffer on each side, submit a parking easement agreement to the Board, somehow address the neighbors concerns regarding the smoking, and all of the conditions which Mr. Pfeffer previously agreed to.

To many boos from the neighbors, the Board ultimately supported this motion and approved the application.

The neighbors are considering challenging the approval in New Jersey Superior Court.

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Anonymous said...

The board members clearly didn’t like the plan but none of them had the beitzim to vote against a shul.
Stick a shul next door to them and see what happens.
Additionally, this idea that the shul is here anyways so screw the neighbors is messed up.

Anonymous said...

A synagogue,or a shul what the difference we all should have one.No property taxes to pay.Yes life is good.

Anonymous said...

They are there already, so they weren't paying property taxes until now anyway.