Congregants with Shalom Deitsch are just looking for a permanent place to call home.
Now the Upper Dublin Zoning Hearing Board has more than a month to decide whether that home can be placed among other homes that are residential.
Representatives with the orthodox Jewish religious institution, a roving synagogue of sorts for some time now, made their case before the quasi-judicial body Aug. 28, but supporters weren’t the only ones in attendance.
A group of neighbors who live on Fort Washington Avenue, the proposed future site of the synagogue, came out to show their opposition to the plan. They said they’re not against synagogues, or religious institutions of any type, they just don’t feel this is an appropriate location.
But the law seems to be on Shalom Deitsch’s side. Generally, applicants appeal to the zoning hearing board for variances. In this case, the synagogue has to prove it is entitled to what is known as a special exception.
Rick Barton, Upper Dublin’s zoning officer and code enforcement director, explained that under township code, “houses of worship” are allowed to be constructed in A residential zoning districts as a special exception. Applicants still have to prove they deserve the special exception.
During Monday’s meeting, the neighbors voiced numerous concerns about the proposal. Residents argued the proposed site is not an appropriate spot for a building that will generate additional traffic flow, add more impervious surface to the area and alter the appearance of the neighborhood.
“The area that we’re talking about is a very busy area,” Jill Pastore said. She and her husband, Chris, reside on an adjacent property. “You cannot comprehend, unless you live there, what the traffic is like.”
Jill Pastore said she is worried about the negative impact on her property value should the building be constructed. Realtors she spoke with flat out advised her to sell the family’s home, she claimed.
Her husband has concerns of his own.
“As a homeowner, I’m opposed because I feel it’s unsafe for my children,” he said. “Every additional car [puts] my child’s life more at risk. It truly and dramatically impacts on the health and welfare of myself and my children.”
In an effort to defend himself, Rabbi Shalom Deitsch, the synagogue’s namesake, said his congregation has been operating out of homes and buildings in the area, including Fort Washington Elementary School, which is located on the very same street where the building is proposed to be built. Deitsch said there have been no significant traffic woes in direct response to the synagogue’s renting space there.
That, coupled with the fact that the synagogue doesn’t plan on immense growth, should be assurance enough for residents concerned, in particular, with a dramatic increase in traffic, Deitsch said.
According to the rabbi, the Lubavitch movement, of which his congregation is a part, is an offshoot of Orthodox Judaism, and puts more of a focus on Jewish teachings and rituals. Its worshipers are – for the most part – quiet, spiritual seekers who hold minion, or worship, in the comfort of small settings. His synagogue, he said, does not aim to grow into a Temple Sinai or a Congregation Beth Or, two other Upper Dublin synagogues.
“I think this building should serve our needs for a long time,” Deitsch said.
Residents still voiced concern about the impact on their homes from traffic and a potential increase in storm-water runoff from the site.
“It is made clear that we do have a problem,” said Mary Hicks, who lives on nearby Tressler Drive.
Hicks questioned what recourse residents would have should their homes be adversely affected by the building.
“We have concerns, for the amount of money we spent on our homes,” she said.
In response to the flooding concerns, the synagogue’s attorney, Michael Yanoff, assured residents that Upper Dublin has very stringent requirements when regarding storm-water management, but this is not dealt with until applicants appear before township commissioners at the land development stage.
“They [commissioners] take a very aggressive approach to all of these issues,” Yanoff said.
One of the major issues leading residents to believe there will be an increase in traffic comes not from the number of worshipers projected to attend regular services – the rabbi said during the high holy holidays in particular, congregants will walk to the synagogue, since driving is forbidden – but due to the preschool and religious school scheduled to be offered at the building. A preschool would operate on weekday mornings and Hebrew school classes would be offered on weekday afternoons and on weekends.
Still, Deitsch assured residents that this should not be cause for alarm, because drop-off and pickup times would be staggered. Also, there are not that many children expected to attend classes. The rabbi’s wife, Devorah Deitsch, who has been the synagogue’s educational director for the past 10 years, said she doesn’t anticipate more than 60 students to sign up for the preschool, with that same number expected for the religious school.
“I would rather focus on quality rather than quantity, with no question,” she said.
Devorah Deitsch said each class shouldn’t exceed 15 students.
The zoning hearing board did not vote on the matter, instead opting to list the issue as a discussion topic on its Sept. 18 agenda. The issue may or may not come to a vote then, although the board is required to render a decision within a 45-day timeframe.
The clock started ticking Monday night.