2010-10-14 / Front Page

Expansion of the Chabad gets new life

By Sylvie Belmond belmond@theacorn.com

Ventura County officials postponed a decision on the Oak Park Chabad expansion Tuesday in order to investigate a charge that the county violated a federal religious land use law when it earlier denied the synagogue’s request to expand its occupancy.

In July, county planning commissioners turned back an effort by the neighborhood Chabad to increase occupancy from 70 to 145 people for Saturday services and special holidays, and to keep an illegal patio enclosure intact.

After removing the 750- square-foot patio structure, Chabad filed an appeal with the county board of supervisors hoping to overturn the planning commission’s decision.

Chabad attorney Philip Dunn said denial of the expansion violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which says governments must have compelling reasons to deny a church, synagogue or mosque. “They only denied it because they believed that it may cause too much noise or private intrusion, but there’s no evidence of that,” Dunn said.

“The planning commission found no environmental impacts, the fire marshal determined that 145 people is safe and there was no traffic congestion problem,” the attorney said.

Chabad has operated the synagogue inside a 4,000-square-foot single-family home in the 5900 block of Conifer Street since 1994. The converted house retains a residential look outside, but was modified inside to accommodate religious activities. The proposed expansion provoked the ire of neighbors, who feared additional parking and noise problems in their community.

Supervisor Linda Parks recommended postponing the Oct. 12 hearing to allow the planning department to review the land use laws and determine whether they apply to the Oak Park situation.

“I want to make sure our decision is well founded. It’s one of those situations where we could get sued so we need the information,” Parks said.

Supervisor Peter Foy said the religious land use act could serve to overturn the planning commission’s recent denial and give new life to the expansion request.

“The Board (of Supervisors) should only review the issue if the new decision is appealed or if the religious land use act doesn’t apply,” Foy said.

Chabad leaders were pleased with the supervisors’ stance.

“I understand the county’s decision because the law is very much in our favor and they want to make sure that they research it and make the right decision,” said Rabbi Shlomo Bistritzky, synagogue director.

Lenore Lewis, a resident who lives near the Chabad and opposes the expansion, said officials made a prudent choice.

“Given the impact of this decision to every homeowner in Ventura County, it is vitally important that all aspects of the facts be thoroughly examined,” Lewis said.

County officials estimate it will take about a month to reconsider the Chabad case.

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