August 10, 2001

By granting five variances from the Unified Development Code, the county Board of Adjustment opened the way for Chabad of Delaware to build a synagogue on Silverside Road opposite Green Acres. The action came after a four-hour hearing at which numerous residents of the area voiced either strong support for or strong opposition to the controversial project.

At the end of the marathon session on Aug. 9, Chabad's lawyer, Lisa Goodman, withdrew the most contentious of six variance requests and the board approved the others by a single four-to-one vote during a 20-minute business meeting. Jim Hardman, the only board member who sat silent during the entire hearing while the others questioned most of those who testified, voted against granting the variances. He said he did so in support of community interests.

Nub of the dispute -- and, ironically, the point which ultimately decided it -- was the fact that Conectiv, the power utility company, apparently has agreed to lease Chabad sufficient land under its regional electricity transmission line to provide space for the required parking lot for a nominal $1 a year. The company's property is adjacent to the Chabad property and treating the two parcels as one provides sufficient space to bring the project within development code standards in most respects. No lease agreement was presented at the hearing nor did anyone from Conectiv testify, so the approvals were conditioned on the organization's obtaining an agreement which gives it long-term use of the Conectiv land.

A civic association representing the combined communities of Westwood, Westwood Manor and Forwood and the Windybush Civic Association opposed the variances, basing their argument largely on the claim that Chabad's property is too small for the intended use and its project will change the basic character of the neighborhood. Those groups were backed by the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred which also took a stand in opposition. Both sides entered numerous letters, petitions and statements into the record.

Green Acres Civic Association supported the project, saying that Chabad and its spiritual leader, Rabbi Chuni Vogel, have been a good neighbor during the 14 years that he and his family have lived in that community. Until now, Chabad has functioned mostly in the Vogel home while using venues such as the Jewish Community Center for major events and activities. The Vogels will continue to live in their present house, which is 620 feet in a straight line across Silverside Road from the synagogue site.

Vogel testified that Chabad has a small congregation with an average attendance of between 20 and 30 people at Sabbath services on Friday nights and Saturday and Sunday mornings. The number increases to about 50 on major holydays and for outside speakers, he said. Although he said it does not require any particular degree of observance, Chabad's mission is such that it generally attracts highly observant Jews and therefore does not expect significant growth, although outreach is a part of its activities.

He described Chabad, an international movement, as one "dedicated to strengthening Jewish observance and Jewish identity" through worship and educational activities. Its synagogue is to be known as Chabad Jewish Enrichment Center.

Several residents of the area testified that they bought homes in Green Acres and nearby communities largely because that put them within a Sabbath walk of a place of worship. Jewish law does not permit driving a motor vehicle on the Sabbath and restricts the distance a worshiper is permitted to walk. The Sabbath lasts from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday.

Chairman Chris Koyste pointed out that the adjustment board is bound to support the spirit as well as the letter of the development code. In that regard, he said, liberal provisions for the location of houses of worship in residential areas indicate that County Council has made a conscious decision that they are beneficial to a community. The only caveat is that they be located so that their access is from main roads.

On the other hand, he said, the code is silent on whether to allow the combination of separate properties to meet its requirements. That question becomes more dicey when the combination is effected by lease without a change in ownership, he added. This apparently is the first case in which the board endorsed the idea of accepting lease arrangements.

Philip Lavelle said the regional civic council's executive and zoning committees voted to oppose the project partly because Conectiv officials rejected an invitation to come and explain the company's position in agreeing to "combine property to create a tenuously developable property." The local civic association people also said Conectiv refused to talk with them.

Most of the objectors were careful to stress that their objections were not based on disapproval of the religious mission of the organization nor to the conduct of Jewish activities in the communities.

Resident Rich Przywara provided the most succinct summary of the opposing viewpoint when he said that the mile of Silverside Road between Veale Road and Interstate 95 is totally residential, although bounded by commercial zones in the Graylyn-Branmar and Carr Road areas. "A mile without any [non-residential] development is unusual in this area and this (the synagogue) would change the entire character of that stretch of road. What neighbors are saying is leave this a residential area," he said.

Coralie Pryde, immediate past president of the Westwood Civic Association, said the synagogue would be "commercial appearing [and] lack the green lawn and trees that characterize our homes."

"These are not minor variances but major changes," said Albert Lara, long-time owner of an adjacent property. "Synagogues, churches and schools may be built in residential areas, but minimum standards should be observed."

They and others charged that the synagogue and its special events will attract a considerable amount of traffic to the area. Moreover, Pryde said, there are sites elsewhere along Silverside Road that might be more suitable and large enough to better accommodate a congregation. But, she added, "there are some churches up on Silverside where the neighbors are complaining."

The code requires a ratio of parking spaces to either functional area of a building or the number of permanent seats. Chabad is proposing slightly more than the number of spaces required. Under the original plan presented at the hearing, that would require rather significant encroachment into the buffer zone protecting Perkins Run, a small stream.

Eileen Butler, of Delaware Nature Society, objected to granting that variance without reference to an environmental impact study. She said the buffer should receive total protection and that even minor intrusions add up to major problems. "It's the cumulative effect of a little bit here and a little bit there that we are concerned about," she said.

Besides, she added, "why are they asking a parking variance if everybody in the congregation walks to services?"

Request for that variance was the one that Goodman withdrew. She said Chabad will scale down a proposed turnaround in the approach to the main entrance to permit construction of the parking lot without encroachment. The house which presently stands on the property does encroach and the board agreed to a variance to permit that to continue. Koyste said the amount of that encroachment is minimal and it is an existing condition.

Loss of trees in the area and contributing the potential flooding of the stream were major issues voiced at the hearing. Vogel, Goodman and their consultant Jerome Heissler testified that only the minimum number of trees would be removed and an underground stormwater management system would, in Heissler's words, result in "making the [flooding] problem no worse than it is now and probably some improvement."

The dispute has been pending since Chabad took an option om the property in 1998 and bought it a year later. Vogel said that it was decided to seek a separate location for the organization's activity because a synagogue would be a more suitable setting and would end disruptions to the family life of himself, his wife and eight children.

The proposal actually seeks to build a 6,000 square foot one-story addition to the existing house. The new area is to be divided into a sanctuary, a social hall with kitchen, and a reception area. The house will continue to used for office space and as a residence for rabbinical interns who work with the congregation.

Although Goodman contended that her client has made numerous changes in its plans to accommodate objections raised by the community, the civic association people claimed the organization has been less than forthcoming and consistent in describing its intentions.

"We have no guarantee what is going to be built. They could come back and want to add a second story or another 1,000 [square] feet to what is already gross overdevelopment," said resident Thomas Myers.

Bernard Dempsey, who represented the Windybush Civic Association, said that it is "in the nature of churches" to seek to expand and that the proposed project already is of such a size that it will "produce more traffic and cause more accidents on the dangerous curve" which is nearby on Silverside Road.

Next step in the approval process is for Chabad to enter into the Department of Land Use's subdivision approval process. That requires firm, rather than the existing conceptual, plans. Once these plans are demonstrated to meet the technical requirements of the code, construction can proceed. No timetable for that has yet been offered.

In addition to Green Acres Civic Association support, Vogel and his ministry  received endorsements from several immediate neighbors in that development. "It's a privilege to have Chabad in my community. It teaches our children good morals and traditions which we [adults] have fallen away from," said Jonnie Elfman.

Nancy Plerhoples, who lives behind the Vogels and identified her family as Presbyterian, said she was unaware until recently that there have been weddings and bar mitzvahs in the Vogels' house. "Their activities are all low-key. The most we've ever heard coming from there is some soft chanting. The Vogels are wonderful neighbors. Observant Jews make good friends and neighbors," she said.

"As a Christian, I am happy to see another group that worships the same God that I do," added Tom Gaynor.

2001. All rights reserved.

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