A state court has cast a cloud on Chabad of Southampton’s synagogue.
State Supreme Court Justice Thomas F. Whelan ruled last week in favor of attorneys for neighbors who contended that the Southampton Zoning Board of Appeals did not follow proper procedure when it granted Chabad the variances it needed to operate a synagogue in a converted private home at 214 Hill St.
He then ordered the board to write a new decision using the “proper form.” The neighbors’ attorneys had argued that the board failed to include a discussion in its 35-page decision of five factors that it had to weigh before a variance could be granted. In addition, Whelan directed the board to include in its decision the reasons it decided the synagogue would not pose any environmental problem.
“It is quite possible that once the procedural defects are corrected,” Whelan wrote, “the board will be able to issue a negative declaration that establishes that this project will not result in any significant adverse environmental impacts and that the required ‘hard look’ at the environmental impacts … was undertaken by the board.” The court added that the neighbors’ attorneys had failed to offer proof “that Chabad substantially impairs the privacy, enjoyment, and use of the neighboring residential properties.”
Rabbi Rafe Konikov, the synagogue’s spiritual leader, said the judge’s decision to send the case back to the board was based on a “technical” error and that the board would now simply rewrite its decision to conform to the procedures the court outlined.But David Peirez of Garden City, an attorney for one of the neighbors, insisted that the judge did not simply give the zoning board a “writing exercise.”
“It is not just a matter of crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s,” he insisted.
Peirez said the board must now demonstrate that it has reviewed the environmental impact the synagogue would have on the neighborhood. To do that, he said, would require one or more public hearings.
“Everything the rabbi presents in the way of environmental factors we can oppose and present evidence to the contrary,” he said. “The board has to make a determination based on public hearings of whether there is a need for an environmental impact statement.”
“[The board] skipped over this and it got caught with its pants down,” Peirez continued. “They were so bamboozled by charges of anti-Semitism that they put the Chabad on this postage stamp parcel [of property]. … At least four of the five members of the board don’t want to be accused of being anti-Jewish.”
The board granted the synagogue the necessary variances by a vote of 4-1.Chabad’s lawyer, Jeffrey Bragman of East Hampton, said Peirez’s reading of the decision is “totally incorrect” and that all the judge was doing was pointing out “a procedural problem, not a substantive one.” And he said the board does not necessarily have to hold a public hearing. He pointed out that Whelan said such a hearing was at the board’s discretion to conduct.
“We regret that the board has to go back and correct two procedural problems, but we think the decision strongly telegraphs that the substance of the decision is correct,” Bragman said. “It is likely that the board can reach the same decision and have it affirmed on appeal.”
In the meantime, Rabbi Konikov said the synagogue will continue to operate.