Saturday, December 18, 2010

Commission says county didn't violate federal law in limiting chabad's growth 

An Oak Park synagogue's bid to double its occupancy limit was denied for a second time Thursday when a panel ruled the county had not violated a federal law protecting religious exercise.

The decision by the county Planning Commission returns the matter to the Board of Supervisors, although representatives of Chabad of Oak Park expect a court fight may be necessary.

"I am terribly disappointed and terribly heartbroken, but I feel strongly in our position and will continue to fight the good fight," Rabbi Shlomo Bistritzky said after the 4-1 decision.

Leaders of Chabad of Oak Park want the commission to raise the occupancy allowed by its county permit from 70 to 145. The ceiling would apply to Sabbath and Jewish holiday services at the converted house in a residential area.

Commissioners rejected the expansion over customary land use issues in July, then took it up again Thursday to weigh whether it's required under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

In a six-hour hearing in Ventura, rabbis and worshipers said their rights to practice their faith had been compromised.

Worshipers cannot easily get to another service if 70 people are already inside the chabad because their beliefs prohibit driving on the Sabbath, Bistritzky said.

"This is a real burden on our community to be asked to go elsewhere," he told the commission.

Although they sympathized, four of the five commissioners said the denial did not violate the federal law.

Commissioners Leo Molitor, W. Stephen Onstot, Michael Wesner and Richard Rodriguez found no violation. Commissioner Nora Aidukas dissented.

Commissioners said that even though they did not find in favor of the chabad, they hoped the Board of Supervisors would consider raising the ceiling over 70 for the growing congregation. But Bistritzky said in an interview that he was not interested in compromising.

"Our position is that 145 is less than what the building can safely hold, and this is the only compelling government interest that we can measure it for," he said. "There's no reason given why it should be less."

Commissioners ruled after Assistant County Counsel Robert Kwong said a variety of technical grounds had to be met. He cited other court decisions involving the law to commissioners, who were skittish about handling issues that are often left to federal judges.

"We are not the Supreme Court," Molitor told the chabad's followers.

To make the finding, the commissioners first had to decide whether the chabad had made a "prima facie" case, or one true at first sight that the county had "substantially burdened" the exercise of religion.

None but Aidukas agreed that the county had done so.

The panel decided unanimously that the government had a compelling interest in the matter. All but Aidukas said the county had acted in the least restrictive manner.

About 50 people attended the hearing, some the orthodox Jews who attend the chabad and others neighbors opposing expansion.

"To be very clear, we are not against any religious organization," said Jeri Fox, a 27-year resident of Oak Park. "We want the chabad to stay small."

A fire inspection last year showed that at least 168 people could safely occupy the structure. An environmental review also cleared the proposed expansion, officials said.

Planning Director Kim Prillhart, though, said zoning rules require compatibility between the chabad and the homes in the surrounding area. Chabad leaders agreed to the limitation of 70 when terms were negotiated for the permit in 1994, she said.

"It could be an arbitrary number, but it was a number that was agreed to at that time," she said.

She added that the federal act does not exempt religious institutions from local land use law, nor does the county zoning code contain special considerations for religion.


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