Judge Rules In Favor Of Engelwood Synagogue

21 12 2008

east-hillA state judge ruled Friday that the Englewood Planning Board properly allowed a local synagogue to expand seating without adding parking, dismissing a neighborhood group’s claim that the board acted capriciously and unethically.

The decision marks the latest round in what has been years of legal battles between 138 Brayton St., the neighborhood group, and East Hill Synagogue at 225 Walnut St.

In 2007, the Planning Board approved the synagogue’s application to expand from 123 seats to a maximum of 225 without commensurate parking expansion. Brayton’s attorney argued before state Superior Court Judge Garry S. Rothstadt in Paterson last month that the decision was arbitrary and capricious, and that some board members had a conflict of interest in the matter. Four board members who voted on the measure were also members of Ahavath Torah, another modern Orthodox synagogue affiliated with East Hill, the neighborhood group’s attorney argued.

Attorneys for the Planning Board and East Hill maintained that the affiliation between the two synagogues does not present a conflict. Judge Rothstadt ultimately agreed. In his written decision released Friday, he stated, “Here, a conflict could exist if any of the four board members were members of EHS (East Hill Synagogue). Moreover, if Ahavath Torah maintained any financial ties to EHS, that relationship could also be the basis of a conflict, since it is clear that the interest of a synagogue or church passes to all its members.”

But Rothstadt found that wasn’t the case. “None of the members of the board were members of the applicant, EHS. They were simply members of Ahavath Torah, a separate and distinct congregation within the same township. They did not pay money to EHS, nor were they able to avail themselves [of], or [get] any benefits from, EHS. Neither they nor Ahavath Torah maintained any direct or indirect pecuniary or personal interest in EHS.”

Rothstadt went on to state that the Planning Board’s decision had a sturdy basis. “The central issue in regards to the application’s approval involved parking and traffic. The board recognized that a larger sanctuary would cause more people to attend the synagogue than the amount contemplated during the original approval process in 2000,” the judge said, referring to EHS’ initial application to take up residence in the old Victorian house it occupies.

“In deciding the issue, the board relied upon the essentially undisputed fact that parking issues were created on a limited number of times during each year since, for the most part, the congregants walked to EHS and did not drive. In addition, both sides’ experts agreed that to have additional asphalt parking areas was contrary to good planning for a residential area, especially where its use was limited to relatively few occasions. Moreover, both sides’ experts agreed that good planning dictated consideration of typical conditions and not worse-case scenarios,” the judge stated.

“Ultimately, the board decided the parking issue by balancing the interests involved, and deciding that residents in the area would have to tolerate occasional inconvenience caused by occasional overflow on-street parking in order to give continued practical meaning to the freedom to worship.”

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