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45 minutes south of Lakewood, the former Bass River Township Elementary School, is now approved to be converted into a yeshiva with dormitory facilities.

By a vote of 6-0-1, the Bass River Township Planning Board recently granted use variance and site plan approval to Maple River LLC, an entity founded by Lakewood-based developer Eli Blech, to convert and renovate part of an existing vacant school for a Beis Medrash yeshiva and dormitory.

The yeshiva was originally proposed to consist of up to 149 students and 25 staff members. The renovations were to provide dormitory facilities for 38 students who will live on site.

Following opposition from the neighbors, the proposal was drastically cut down for a total of 42 persons; 35 full time students living in dorms with seven daytime students and three staff members.

Blech testified that a Yeshiva is a traditional Jewish educational institution focused on the study of Rabbinic literature primarily the Talmud and Halacha, while Torah and Jewish philosophy are studied for male students, aged 18 to 21. The Yeshiva will be open all year around for the students who attend; with holidays. There is no intent for it to be used as a holiday camp.

The yeshiva was represented by Attorney Donna M. Jennings, Esq. of Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer, P.A., Engineer Yehuda Back, P.E., of Newlines Land Consultants LLC, Architect Shimon Greenbaum RA, NCARB, AIA, Managing Principal at Rise Architecture, NJ, and Planner Andrew W. Janiw, PP, AICP of Beacon Planning and Consulting Services, LLC.

Although the site was at one point used as a public elementary school, schools are no longer a permitted use in the zoning district. The application therefore required use variance approval to expand the existing nonconforming use. School representatives testified to the Board that only the school itself required use variance approval, as the dormitory was an "accessory use" to the school. 

Numerous neighbors voiced opposition to the proposal, including as to the integrity of the septic system.

In response, Ms. Jennings confidently assured the Board that a yeshiva under the relevant law is considered to be “analogous to a seminary or monastery” and in a category that “fundamentally serves the public good and promotes general welfare.”

Furthermore, Jennings maintained, religious institutions of this nature, “enjoy a highly favored and protected status” that “severely curtails” regulation by local government.

Mr. Janiw advised the board that a variance of this type “cannot be granted strictly for the benefit of the applicant,” but must help to “promote public health, safety, morals and general welfare,” - all objectives he maintained would be served by the proposed new use of the former school, which would also involve an “easy conversion” that conforms with the township Master Plan.

“All necessary elements (are there) for the school to operate,” including dorms, an assembly area and kitchen space, Janiw pointed out, adding that the property would continue to be an educational facility that will make the most “efficient use of the land for structures that are already there.”

Board Attorney Christopher J. Norman advised the Board that their consideration needed to be based strictly on their legal obligation to follow existing case law and judicial precedents governing religious schools, and not on any off-topic concerns such as property taxes and how yeshivos operate.

One resident questioned if the applicant would help the convenience store stay open? Mr. Blech responded "yes, with a recommendation to carry kosher food."

Ultimately the Board voted 6-0-1 to approve the application.

The proposal must still overcome any potential problems that might be raised by either the Burlington County Board of Health, which will evaluate whether the existing septic system meets county standards, or the Pinelands Commission.

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Chaim Yutz said...

A dormitory is only an "accessory use" to a school in Bass River and Jackson Townships.

As far as Lakewood goes, Judge Ford and Judge Hodgson have ruled clearly that dormitories are NOT an accessory use to a school.

Anonymous said...

כן ירבה וכן יפרוץ

Yeshivos should continue to seek appropriate locations to build out of Lakewood, וּפָרַצְתָּ יָמָּה וָקֵדְמָה וְצָפֹ× ָה וָ× ֶגְבָּה.

Arco said...

Who are the board members?

Anonymous said...

And you wonder why

Anonymous said...

Forget the Board.
Who's the RY?