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Congregation Adath Israel Presents Building Proposal to Hillside Zoning Board

(Part I of II)

Hillside, June 10—The municipal courtroom was filled to capacity with an overflow of observers standing on the sides and in the back for the bi-monthly meeting of the zoning board. In the estimation of zoning-board spokesman Dennis Kolester, upwards of 95 percent of those present were members of Congregation Adath Israel of Elizabeth. Almost everyone in attendance came to show their support for the planned construction of the new AI building proposed for the northeast corner at Westminster and North Avenue in Hillside.

Angela Garretson, Mayor of Hillside, was also present, as were several township officials. In addition there was a small entourage of neighboring residents, some of whose homes border the proposed building site and others who reside across the street. Prior to the start of the meeting, the chair announced that only five of the full quorum of seven board members would be in attendance that night. He explained that a five-member board does have the authority to vote a decision on any building proposal, but that the board could also opt to defer a vote until the full seven board members are present. Either way, a majority vote is required to pass or deny a proposal. By the end of the meeting, however, it became clear that the presence or absence of a quorum that night would not figure in at all to the any of the decisions of the zoning board.

The proceedings came to order as Dennis and the board’s attorney, Steven Herman, explained “the rules of the game” in a zoning hearing. Next, Joseph Paparo, the attorney representing AI, was invited by the board to present witnesses in support of the proposal. Mr. Paparo summarized his intentions to call upon several witnesses—including the industry experts who were involved directly in all technical and legal aspects of the plans for the new building and property. These witnesses would also provide justification for the building code variances that were being requested.

The first witness called was the architect who prepared the building plans for AI, David Mayerfeld. He presented the proposed architectural rendition of the synagogue building and grounds, including orientation, special structural features designed to enhance the aesthetics of the building by hiding from view the necessary mechanical equipment on the roof. He further explained the general design of the building to promote a pleasant feel to the neighborhood via the external face of the building using glass and brick. He addressed the code compliance with the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990) regulations, providing ground-level entry and an elevator near the entrance for access to the lower level.

He then described the internal space allocations based on the historical and projected needs of the congregation, and mentioned the placement of some special features designed to maximize the entry of natural light into the building.

Next Paparo called the next witness for AI, Mayer Milgraum, to represent the collective congregation.

With a touch of humor, and breaking the tension somewhat, the board chair inquired whether everyone present to support the AI proposal would be witnessing. Waiting for the soft laughter to quiet down, Milgraum presented a brief history of the congregation in the building that was erected over 60 years ago, noting the geometric growth of member families in number and size since that time. He also explained that congregants—without exception of weather or other extenuating circumstances—all walk to the building on Jewish holidays and the weekly Sabbath, greatly reducing what would be the usual need for parking space, and eliminating any increase in auto traffic during these peak uses of the building. He also noted that much of the current member population in Hillside is nearly a mile from the current building, which presents somewhat of a hardship for young families in getting to the building for religious services. Milgraum then displayed a scatter-chart exhibit showing the location and concentration of Hillside (and Elizabeth) residents with their greater proximity to the proposed new location, thus significantly reducing the walking distance for the vast majority of the Hillside residents.

He also summarized some of the needs for the variances being proposed, and a few of the special features of the architectural design that reduce the energy usage—and thus the carbon footprint—for the building.

Milgraum further emphasized the justification for a variance allowing reduced parking spaces, because even on the major Jewish holidays, there would be no one driving.

The next witness was David Wisotsky, civil engineer for the project, who mounted his exhibit of the aerial view of the property and explained the comprehensive land usage, showing boundaries, parking design, orientation and traffic flow of the driveways. The parking lot includes designated handicapped spaces by percentage of total spaces. He described the building cover of the land as 35.35 percent, which is only slightly higher than the 35 percent zoning regulation for a residential area. He further described the land expanse usage near the property lines, as well as the water channel infrastructure already in place beneath the property, and how it would be enhanced to properly manage water drainage. He concluded with an overview of the landscape plan and lighting, designed with the privacy and minimal invasion impact on neighboring properties.

John Harter, licensed traffic engineer in six states witnessed next, and described the studies he performed to assess and evaluate the impact of and needs of the proposed AI building. He defended the low impact outcome on traffic, and also reported on the NJDOT assessment and rulings on the driveway design and usage—including safe distance placement of the entrance and exit driveway access to the property relative to the intersection of Westminster and North Avenues, and alignment with the driveway of the church parking lot located on the south side of North Avenue. He noted with emphasis that the traffic and parking variances proposed are all in compliance with the recommendations and approval of the NJDOT.

The final witness for AI was Kevin O’Brien, licensed planner and the plan director for the project. He discussed the usual variances allowed under zoning regulation D3, “conditional use” for a building such as AI proposes constructed in a residential area. He highlighted the enhanced quality of life added by a “house of worship” in the neighborhood, and compared it to other “like” allowable structures such as hospitals, schools and parks. He further illustrated how the AI building passes the test of non-negative impact by being in the public interest and balances the positive impact on a residential area versus the detrimental impact. Several of the witnesses also testified to meeting the fire code including a built-in fire-suppression system.

Upon invitation of the board for others to present information, one of the residents whose property lies along the northern border came up to raise a plethora of issues. He stated that he represented the neighbors as a group and claimed to possess a petition on their behalf. The attorney for the zoning board clarified that they do not accept petitions, and that he could only represent himself with his comments. His list was long, and he began to argue his case, but was stopped and required to swear in as a witness giving testimony. In opposition not only to the variances, but to the construction of the “mega building” itself, some of his oppositions were specific, although minor—and others were primarily generalized, clearly representing opinion more than fact. He requested to submit photos of the fence and attested that he took the photos and did not alter them in any way. Another neighbor to the property, Jack Cohen, who resides with his family across the street, remarked that he is in favor of the building, and feels it will enhance the quality of the neighborhood significantly.

The witnesses were all questioned by various members of the board, but some were drilled in detail by Michael Mistrietta. Some of the discussion generated by this drilling made it clear that some of the variances could be easily satisfied, while others needed significant discussion and alteration to satisfy the zoning board. With this apparent and the hour approaching 10 p.m.—the limit by which they could no longer accept new testimony—the board agreed to reconvene on Wednesday, July 7, at 7 p.m., at which time some of the variances would be addressed, and to provide time in between for some of the plans to be adjusted to satisfy the board’s concerns.

Installment two will follow the July 7 meeting of the Hillside zoning board. The mayor of Hillside was unavailable for comment, although the consensus is that she seems to be in favor of the project for the township of Hillside.

By Ellie Wolf

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