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Tacoma, WA - West End Neighbors Challenge Plan for Chabad Synagogue

Published on: September 13, 2008 09:32 PM
By: The News Tribune
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Rabbi Zalman Heber, Director of Chabad Jewish Center of Pierce County, met with the city of Tacoma’s Mayor, Mr. Bill Baarsma.Tacoma, WA - Rabbi Zalman Heber looks at a garage and sees a synagogue.
His neighbors see a problem.

The proposed site for the new home of Chabad of Pierce County, has sparked controversy in a quiet corner of Tacoma’s West End.

Proponents see the placement of the synagogue as vital to worship practices, but some neighbors worry about impact on traffic, views and property values.

The conflict has been slowly building since when an application for a conditional use permit was filed with the city. Since then, the West End Neighborhood Council executive board, acting on behalf of several neighbors concerned about the building’s dimensions, has written the city to oppose parts of the synagogue’s variance application.

Heber, who moved to Tacoma in November 2003 to start a center that is part of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, visited every house within 400 feet of the site at 2146 N. Mildred St. to tell neighbors what he was planning.

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“I showed them the whole project,” he said. “I showed them the height. I showed them the aesthetics, the looks. I said, ‘As a neighbor, I want to show you this.’ And not one – I want to be on record about this – not one opposed the project.”

But about six weeks later, several neighbors told him they were worried about the changes to the neighborhood that a synagogue would bring. Some letters sent to the city – and forwarded to Heber – were critical of the project. And the executive board of the neighborhood council met and drafted a letter to the city opposing the proposed dimensions of the building.

To Heber, the negative feedback came as a shock.
“I’m not a prophet; I’m a rabbi. I don’t know what’s going on in their minds,” he said. “So when I see letters coming in opposition, it takes me by surprise.”

A five-car garage, a holdover of the previous landowner’s fondness for vintage automobiles, sits on the site of the proposed synagogue. The plans for the building would require razing that wooden structure and replacing it with a larger, taller building.
The dimensions of this building – with a total floor area of 7,772 square feet and a sloping roof that peaks at 30 feet – seem to cause the most concern.

According to the permit, the synagogue would be built within 7 feet, 6 inches of the north and south property lines.

“The north and south neighbors have stated that they fear this type of mammoth building so close to their properties will infringe on their privacy, not to mention lowering their property values due to the larger building being so close to their property lines,” reads the letter from Ginny Eberhardt, the neighborhood council’s chairwoman, to the city.

“Several of the neighbors came to us and asked for us to help in trying to stop the size of the building – not the group, just the size of the building that was going in,” Eberhardt said. “We feel it’s just a huge building for a regular residential lot.”

The woman who lives two houses south of the proposed building said “I think the building they’re planning on putting in is just not in keeping with the neighborhood,” said 64-year-old Pat Montgomery Anderson. “I wish they would either keep it small or place it somewhere else where it doesn’t seem out of context.”

But Heber said traditional synagogues have always been built in residential neighborhoods. One reason: Driving on the Sabbath is forbidden in Jewish tradition, so congregation members should ideally be walking on Saturdays.

Founded in Russia 250 years ago, Chabad-Lubavitch is guided by the teachings of its seven historic leaders – called rebbes – who stressed tradition and leadership. Members often follow Jewish dietary laws – including abstaining from pork and other nonkosher foods – and refrain from working on the Sabbath.

“I’m not going to fool anyone and say it looks like a typical home on the block,” he said. “But it has a homey look. There’s one door in front. There aren’t huge towers with giant Stars of David on top.”

Parking is a thorny issue with several neighbors. Although teaching discourages driving on the Sabbath, some congregation members who live outside of walking distance would drive to the synagogue. They would use the parking lot of nearby Skyline Elementary School after 7:30 p.m. on weekdays and all day on the weekends.
Heber said, that if he had his wish, no one would drive to the synagogue.

The letter from the council executive board to the city referenced people driving from as far away as Seattle to attend services. Heber said the Chabad-Lubavitch tradition doesn’t keep membership numbers.

But Mark Friedman, a retired lawyer who lives in Port Orchard and is part of the congregation, doesn’t believe there would be a problem.
“It’s a local, small congregation,” he said. “A lot of the people are within the neighborhood and walk. And there are a few others who have to drive, but you’re still talking small. On a typical Saturday morning, if we get 25 people, we’re doing well.”

Earl Vernon purchased a house about a block and a half from the proposed synagogue 18 months ago specifically so he could walk to services on the Sabbath.
“If they look at the big picture, it’ll benefit the community and Tacoma at large,” he said. “Diversity always helps a community.”
He also views possible zoning restrictions as an infringement on his right to freely practice his religion.
“We’re a small community, and since we have to walk on the Sabbath, the property size and location is perfect for us,” he said. “We’re asking for equal access.”

Heber believes more dialogue can ease the concerns of the neighbors worried about the synagogue.
“I thought everyone was in agreement,” he said. “And now that I see not everyone is, let’s talk. Let’s talk over the issues.”

 



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Read Comments (27)  —  Post Yours »

1

 Sep 13, 2008 at 10:45 PM chabadtzker Says:

ein kimo chabad

2

 Sep 13, 2008 at 10:48 PM Dave Says:

The two statements don't match.

They get 25 people if they are lucky, but need a nearly 8,000sq ft facility in a residential neighborhood?

3

 Sep 13, 2008 at 11:02 PM Dave Says:

Incidentally, lest there be any confusion, I think Chabad has every right to have a synagogue there.

My question is to the appropriateness of the size for the neighborhood.

4

 Sep 13, 2008 at 10:51 PM Anonymous Says:

To Dave,
On RH and YK they would probalby get alot more, plus lectures, shiurim, programs for adults, youth, hebrew school, and the list goes on and on...
catch my drift?

5

 Sep 14, 2008 at 12:30 AM asken Says:

we are in golus stop the chilul hashem dont force down your believes down your nin jewish neighborhood

6

 Sep 14, 2008 at 01:17 AM TRS Says:

Asken, we are in Golus, stop the Chilul Hashem, all Jews should Shmad and then there'll be no anti-semitism.

7

 Sep 14, 2008 at 04:55 AM let us shelp nachas Says:

Their sincerity and mesiras nefesh can only bring about a huge kiddush hashem. Zalmy and Miriam keep on awakening the pinteleh yid

8

 Sep 14, 2008 at 11:26 AM anon money Says:

Why can Jews fight a bike lane that makes them uncomfortable and non Jews can’t fight a synagogue with all the people and kinds in their peaceful backyard???????????????

9

 Sep 14, 2008 at 12:45 PM Uriel Says:

Anon, Last time I checked bike lanes do not fall under the Freedom of Religion Act.

10

 Sep 14, 2008 at 01:05 PM Uriel Says:

Dave, I believe religious assemblies cannot function without a physical space adequate to their needs and consistent with their theological requirements. The proposed location and physical size of the building meets with our theological requirements.

11

 Sep 14, 2008 at 01:54 PM Dave Says:

Uriel:

To the best of my knowledge, Washington state does not have a law that excludes religious organizations from zoning requirements.

(As an aside, if someone bought the land in a heimish community and wanted to build a large temple for outright Avodah Zarah, would you have the same response as to any zoning variances?)


12

 Sep 14, 2008 at 02:38 PM charne Says:

mitzvah habo be aveirah all these courts and chilul hashem

13

 Sep 14, 2008 at 03:21 PM Steve Says:

I saw no concern to this proposal until I received the public notice for a 35 foot tall structure of near 8000 square foot!!

Yah, sure - no problem. Everybody wants to live next door to this!?!?

What would you do? See the drawings:

Front (east) side: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevestuff/2856963878/
Site plan (no back yard): http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevestuff/2856963952/
Styled after this one (3 story proposed is 2 story) in New York: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevestuff/2856132383/

AND - the Synagogue will NOT be supplying parking for their congregation.

14

 Sep 14, 2008 at 06:44 PM goldy Says:

chabad does wonderful work....but...would you be happy if the goyim did this in your neighborhood. go build on commercial lots. it is a bit of a chutzpah to think pple are ok with an 8,000 sq ft commercial lot on their block...dont be so self centered

15

 Sep 14, 2008 at 08:01 PM Robroy560 Says:

I atteneded a Chabad dedication in upstate this weekend. It took many years and many zoning battles. All I can say is engage your neighbors politely, and let them know what you are about.

Unless if you live in a big urban area like NYC, most people will object to almost all buildings. I've seen proposals for new firehouses, something that very essential to every person in a community get rejected. Traffic congestion, noise, size, etc. are all legitimate reasons.

I also know of a Young Israel in the suburbs that wants to expand. They can do it, if they can get more parking. Now we all know part of the basic criteria to be a Young Israel is the parking lot must be closed on Shabbt & Yom Tov. But, their local municipality wants a certain number of parking spaces for a certain square footage. They don't care how often or when the shul's members will use the parking lot.

Before your scream racism, anti-Semitism, etc., the same municipality regulates parking spots for banks based on how many tellers are in the branch! They also don't allow new residential construction if it doesn't have enough parking. Sorry; those are the rules.

While I am not a real estate attorney or an expert on municipal law, please check your local zoning before you start screaming.

16

 Sep 14, 2008 at 08:18 PM Uriel Says:

Steve, lets get the facts straight. 35 feet high is allowed under current zoning for this piece of property. Ideally, people should walk to the shul. If they choose to drive there is shared parking at the public school. It makes no sense to put in another parking lot when one is available just across the street. You asked, " What would you do?" My answer is, speak with Rabbi Zalman so you can talk over the issues.

17

 Sep 14, 2008 at 09:02 PM Dave Says:

Uriel: Not for non-residential use. If the zoning were appropriate for the proposed use, there wouldn't be a variance request.

18

 Sep 14, 2008 at 10:46 PM Uriel Says:

Dave, the variance is for the set backs not for the height of the building.

19

 Sep 14, 2008 at 11:22 PM Dave Says:

Uriel: What size building could be built without a variance?

20

 Sep 14, 2008 at 11:44 PM Uriel Says:

Dave, and btw, there is tons of case law on zoning issues for religious institutions. Federal Law specifically.

21

 Sep 14, 2008 at 11:39 PM Uriel Says:

Dave, Without the variance the set backs are 20 feet. You can do the math. What's left is not big enough for our needs.

22

 Sep 14, 2008 at 11:50 PM Dave Says:

((I agree with you on the parking incidentally. With the school across the street, there is no need for additional parking. It's the scale and scope of the building that seems to be the issue))

23

 Sep 14, 2008 at 11:49 PM Dave Says:

Uriel: How much of that case law is after the Supreme Court ruling that overturned the Religious Freedom Restoration Act? And how much is on point for Washington State zoning?

24

 Sep 15, 2008 at 12:27 AM Milhouse Says:

Dave, the RFRA is not binding on the states, because the Supreme Court struck it down; but the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act is still binding. Any action Chabad brings will be under the RLUIPA.

25

 Sep 15, 2008 at 12:27 AM Milhouse Says:

(That is, struck it down as applied to the states. RFRA still applies to the federal government.)

26

 Sep 15, 2008 at 12:13 AM Uriel Says:

Dave, the Religious Freedom Act was replaced with the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. Many cases have been heard by the SC and many more will be heard this year. I'd say all of it is on point for Wa. State Law.

27

 Sep 15, 2008 at 09:12 AM Dave Says:

Uriel: It looks like it's going to come down to a reasonableness claim then, if it ever went to court.

28

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