After a drawn-out hearing process stretching over several sessions, the board wasted no time in delivering its 4-1 verdict at the start of the March 22 meeting. More than 300 people had packed into the room – due to the lack of chairs, many stood along the walls, while some sat on the floor – for the decision.
The ruling gave Congregation Brothers of Israel, a 123-year-old Conservative congregation in Trenton, N.J., permission to operate a Hebrew school on property that is next to a 247-unit housing development. In testimony at previous hearings, residents bemoaned the increased traffic that the synagogue could bring to the neighborhood.
William Bolla, solicitor to the zoning board, told synagogue leadership they had one year to obtain building permits. After that, members of the synagogue congratulated one another.
"We're very pleased. We feel that the democratic process has played out, and everybody had an opportunity to freely express their opinion," stated Fred Edelman, a past president of the congregation, moments after hearing the news.
While the township's zoning regulations allowed for a house of worship to be built on the residential property, a zoning variance was required in order to operate a Hebrew school on a site. A township ordinance forbids the construction of an educational institution on secondary roads.
Village Road, on which the synagogue will be built, contains only one lane in each direction.
Edelman said that the congregation, which includes some 200-member families – most of whom live in Lower Bucks – has already taken residents' concerns about traffic flow and possible environmental consequences to the abutting wetlands into account.
'A Good Neighbor'
"We want to be accepted as a good neighbor," said Edelman, adding that the synagogue has decided to forgo its original plan to build an assisted-living facility on the property.
Despite such assurances, Brian McGuffen, an attorney who has acted as the de facto leader of the residents opposing the synagogue's land-use plans, said that the issue's far from over.
"We believe there are some strong legal arguments in our favor," he said in addressing several dozen people who'd gathered outside the hearing room in the township's municipal building.
None of the board members said exactly why they voted the way they did. When reached at her home, board member Susan Grossman declined comment, and instead referred all questions to Bolla.
Bolla, who does not have a vote, said a forthcoming written decision – which by regulation must be issued within 45 days of a verdict – would explain board members' justifications.
McGuffen said that once he and Michael Carr, a land use-attorney who represented the residents during the zoning hearing, had a chance to review the decision, they would have a better idea of where they stood.
Still, McGuffen told the residents that an appeal to the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas was likely.
"There could be a point where we'd have to sue the township," said McGuffen, who reiterated that he considered the conflict a land-use – and not religious – matter. "The board essentially overturned its own zoning ordinance for no reason, for no lawful reason anyway."
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