Sunday, February 16, 2014

Long Branch school board sells West End School to Hasidic Jewish group for $3.3 million 

Long Branch school board is selling the West End School to a religious school organization that also happens to be suing the city for alleged discrimination.

The organization, known as the Menachem Learning Institute, is purchasing the 2.26-acre parcel and school for $3.3 million. The institute, known as the Chabad of the Shore, also alleges in a pending lawsuit that the city zoning board discriminated against it when the board rejected its proposal to build a synagogue in West End.

The Long Branch school board voted Jan. 29 to sell the West End School to the Chabad. The 132 West End Ave. property is assessed at $3.64 million, according to public records.

The district is working its way through a multi-year, multi-facility construction program and is removing obsolete and unnecessary inventory off its maintenance and insurance lists, schools Superintendent Michael Salvatore said.

Ideally, Salvatore said, the properties would be returned to the tax rolls. At the very least, the sale of West End School and the potential sale of other schools would provide tax relief as the school board seeks to finalize its next school budget.

The board also is trying to sell the former Alternate School on Chelsea Avenue and the former Church Street School. Bids for both are due by noon Feb. 19.

“We had a lot of interest,” said Salvatore of the eight bid packages that were picked up by potential developers of the West End School. “This group happened to be the only bidder.”

The school board first sought bids in November. In the end, only the institute followed through with a $50,000 down payment with $150,000 to follow and additional payments scheduled as the organization seeks a mortgage. The sale is expected to close in July, Salvatore said.

Lawsuit ongoing
The Chabad in its Superior Court complaint says it was rebuffed when it sought a variance to build a 20,000-square-foot, two-story synagogue in a commercial district where a house of worship is not a permitted use. After a year of sometimes contentious hearings, the city Board of Adjustment in June voted against the proposal.

The Chabad maintains the board’s rejection of the synagogue proposal was motivated by “bias and prejudice against Chabad and a predetermination that it would not allow a religious use on the property.” The group is asking a judge to overturn the decision.

Chabad lawyer Steven Tripp had argued before the board that the synagogue should be approved on the grounds that it is an inherently beneficial use for the city’s West End.

The Chabad argued that replacing a long-abandoned theater and underutilized adjacent storefront and vacant apartments would improve the area, located across from the city’s iconic West End beach.

But local merchants disagreed and board members ultimately determined the project was too big for the neighborhood, which is zoned for a mix of homes and commercial uses.

Tripp declined to be interviewed. Lawyer Martin J. Arbus, who represents the city Board of Adjustment, could not be reached for comment.


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