Etz Chaim gets nod from Teaneck Board of Adjustment

Etz Chaim received approval from Teaneck to turn part of 554 Queen Anne Road into a house of worship. JosH LIPOWSKY

The Teaneck Board of Adjustment voted unanimously last week to grant a series of variances to Etz Chaim that would allow it to use portions of a Queen Anne Road home as a house of worship.

The vote ended more than seven months of hearings and debates with neighbors angry with what they said was the misuse of a residential property at 554 Queen Anne Road, owned by 554 Queen Anne Road Corp., which operates as Etz Chaim. Rabbi Daniel Feldman, who lives in the house with his wife, Leah, and their two children, has held weekly Shabbat services there for more than two years.

“The board, based upon testimony, came to the correct legal decision,” said Ed Trawinski, the lawyer who represented Etz Chaim through the proceedings. “And the board balanced the exercise of freedom of religion with the effort to minimize the impact on a residential neighborhood.”

Under the board’s stipulations, all of which Etz Chaim had agreed to in prior testimony, Etz Chaim is limited to holding only Shabbat and holiday services; no tents or other structures, except a sukkah, may be set up in the yard; no signs may be put up without municipal approval; a six-foot high fence and holly trees must separate Etz Chaim’s property from the western neighbor; no shul catering or cooking may be done in the kitchen; strollers must be kept in a specific area and limited to no more than six, lest they be folded up elsewhere; and a community liaison would be named.

If Etz Chaim sells the property, whether to an individual or another house of worship, the property would revert to a residential zone.

A property tax deduction may be in Etz Chaim’s future, but the organization will have to consult a tax attorney now that a portion of the property has been designated a house of worship, Trawinski said.

“That was an unintended consequence because we were always happy with our status as a prayer group,” said Robert Erlich, the group’s president. “Obviously if there’s a tax benefit, as a congregation we’d be foolish not to take it.”

The board has 45 days from the date of the vote, Aug. 11, to memorialize its decision.

“I am gratified by the decision,” Feldman wrote in an e-mail to The Jewish Standard. “I don’t know all the details of the stipulations, but we will abide by them as we have always complied with all instructions of the township.”

Etz Chaim typically attracts between 20 and 40 people for Shabbat services, said Erlich. The prayer group has no official membership but Etz Chaim has about 25 member-families.

“From an organizational standpoint, nothing has changed,” Erlich said. “Once we get out certificate of occupancy, instead of operating as a prayer group, we will operate as a house of worship.”

The Feldmans rent the property from Etz Chaim, which bought the house in October 2007. The corporation hired Feldman as rabbi that fall. In 2008, Griggs Avenue residents Raphael Campeas and Janet Abbot and some 70 neighbors filed a petition alleging a “change of use” of the property. Such a change requires a permit from the township.

That August, Teaneck’s construction official and zoning officer, Steven M. Gluck, wrote to Feldman, the group’s president, calling on the members to “cease and desist from using the premises as a house of worship/place of public assembly.”

Late last year, Etz Chaim applied to the board of adjustment for variances to allow it to operate as a house of worship inside the home.

From the beginning, Etz Chaim did not properly communicate with its neighbors about their intentions, which led to bad feelings, said board of adjustment chair Warren Hodges.

“If the congregation now starts communicating with the neighbors, the relationship can be fine,” Hodges said. “The resolution brought a balance for the neighborhood and the congregation. Both should be able to be good neighbors to each other.”

Campeas said an appeal of the decision remains an option, but he and the other neighbors will wait to see what happens.

“It entirely depends on how Etz Chaim behaves,” he said. “If they obey the restrictions, I think that there should not be any issues. If they don’t, obviously there will be.”

“My hope is Etz Chaim and the residents will move forward and put this behind them,” Trawinski said.

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