2011-05-12 / Front Page

Supervisors uphold occupancy cap for Chabad

By Sylvie Belmond

The Ventura County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 on Tues., May 4 to partially increase the number of congregants allowed at the Oak Park Chabad.

The synagogue inside a residential home in the 5900 block of Conifer Street has been operating since 1994. Chabad leaders wanted to increase occupancy from 70 to 145 people for Saturday services and from 10 to 25 people for Sunday morning gatherings at the temple.

Supervisor Linda Parks, who chairs the board of supervisors and represents Oak Park, proposed maintaining the weekly services at 70 people, but increasing occupancy to 100 for 10 special events each year.

The motion passed, but Chabad wasn’t pleased.

“They presented a solution that might be misconstrued as a reasonable compromise, but in reality when you take into consideration the way we’re supposed to practice our faith, and restrictions and requirements, it’s basically a complete denial,” Rabbi Shlomo Bistritzky said.

The expansion drew protests from several homeowners who argued that the increase in congregants would bring more traffic and disruption to the neighborhood and set a precedent for future growth.

“If supervisors give Chabad preferential treatment, then homeowners will become second class citizens in their neighborhood,” resident Brad Lewis said during the hearing.

The new permit will be valid for seven years.

Sunday breakfast attendance will still be limited to 10 persons.

Parks said the permit includes tougher restrictions to ensure Chabad— which has violated building and safety codes and exceeded maximum occupancy before—obeys all rules.

Congregants, for example, won’t be allowed to park their vehicles on neighborhood streets. Violations could lead to penalties or revocation of the permit.

Rabbis also must inform the county about the special event dates in advance.

The decision came after five hearings and almost a year’s worth of research and debate.

In July 2010, the county planning commission rejected the synagogue’s requests to double its occupancy. Chabad filed an appeal, charging that the 70-person cap was an attack on its right to worship, but the argument didn’t convince the commission, which rejected a claim that the county had infringed on religious freedoms when it denied Chabad’s request to increase occupancy.

Parks offered to mediate the dispute, but county counsel nixed the idea, saying mediation could jeopardize her ability to vote on the matter. Parks insisted on finding a resolution that would balance the needs of both Chabad members and residents, and keep the matter away from the courts.

Supervisor Peter Foy, who cast the dissenting vote, said the county’s new conditions will intrude on Chabad’s autonomy.

“I can’t support being so restrictive. It seems we’re getting involved in telling somebody how to run their organization,” Foy said.

According to Bistritzky, the supervisors’ decision violates federal freedom of religion laws because it prohibits some orthodox Jews, who can’t drive on the Sabbath, from practicing their faith.

“In essence the county has decided that No. 71 and above should only observe their religious practices 10 times a year while our faith requires we attend every week,” the rabbi said, adding that some families moved to Oak Park for the sole reason of being able to walk to their synagogue.

Moreover, the directive to schedule special services in advance is problematic because dates for events such as births and deaths can’t be predicted, the rabbi said.

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