|The Township of Mahwah has told Chai Lifeline that it cannot continue using the house donated by former Mahwah residents Pamela and Craig Goldman as a respite for families affected by cancer.|
Rabbi Simcha Scholar, executive vice president of Chai Lifeline, said he has no doubt that the “average citizen in Mahwah is compassionate.” Still, he added, he is “appalled” by the township’s cease-and-desist order targeting the group’s Goldman River Retreat for families of children with cancer.
On Wednesday night, as this newspaper went to press, Chai Lifeline, the group’s attorney, and concerned neighbors and supporters were scheduled to attend a town hearing to offer evidence that the Mahwah facility is being used properly, satisfying the zoning regulations for a single-family residence.
“The purpose here is to help families going through crisis,” said Scholar, noting the group’s commitment to the ideas that seriously ill children deserve as happy and normal a childhood as possible and that illness affects each member of the family. “That is our sole objective with the retreat center – to make their lives better. To block parents of kids who have cancer from this respite is the most outrageous thing one can imagine.”
In 2007, Mahwah residents Pamela and Craig Goldman transferred ownership of their single-family residence at 1058 Ramapo Valley Road to Chai Lifeline for use as a temporary “vacation” home for families affected by cancer. According to the group, so far 44 families “have enjoyed a brief respite from the unrelenting stress of parenting a sick child or have found solace from loss” on the grounds of the four-and-a-half-acre site.
Rabbi Avram Cohen, executive director of the group, pointed out that the retreat has been in use 163 days in the past 11 months. The average number of guests in residence at one time has been 5.8.
Numbers count. According to the letter sent to the charity by then-township land using/zoning administrator Mara Winokur, “the use of the subject property … most closely resembles a one-family hotel or boarding house as it is certainly a transient facility where serial ‘families’ utilize the dwelling for varying periods of time.”
The township therefore concluded that “the Chai Lifeline use as presently constituted is a use which is not permitted within the single family R80 zone and that it must cease and desist within a period of 30 days.”
According to the Chai Lifeline executive vice president, “even before the title transfer, we got a lawyer and went to the township.” The town, he said, “seemed to be fine with it.” Then, in February 2007, a neighbor sent a three-page letter to the town “fabricating what we do,” said Cohen. Shortly thereafter, he said, the town sent a cease-and-desist letter.
“No one came down to verify [the allegations],” said Cohen. “Our lawyer was shocked. They didn’t send an inspector. First they told us to come to a meeting, then they said don’t come. Now they are saying again to come.”
The Jewish Standard called Mahwah’s zoning board of adjustment for a comment but was told by its recording secretary that Winokur no longer works there and “there is no one who can speak on this issue.”
Attorney David Eisbrouch of Eisbrouch and Marsh in Hackensack, who is working pro bono “as a friend and supporter of the organization” with its attorney of record, Bruce Whittaker, said he was surprised by that response, since “there is an open case file on the matter and a hearing will be held on Wednesday.”
Eisbrouch said that “the charges are not true” and noted that Chai Lifeline has provided documents to the town proving that only one family at a time used the house as a respite.
“They did not use the house any differently than a single-family owner,” he said, adding that regarding upkeep of the property, he is not aware of any violations or other compliance issues. Before the cease-and-desist letter was issued, he said, “there was no investigation or inquiry made by the township.”
“It’s outrageous that the township would challenge this kind of charitable use of the property,” he said.
Eisbrouch said he hoped Wednesday’s hearing would make the board realize that “the house is being used in compliance with the ordinance regarding single family homes and that they may continue to use it as a brief respite for families dealing with the trying conditions they are living under. It’s appalling that the town is challenging the use of the house on a technicality,” he said, “while clearly it is being utilized in a charitable way by families experiencing conditions I would wish on nobody.”
If necessary, he said, the group will file appeals with the county or state.
A local contractor who has done work for both Chai Lifeline and the neighbor who complained to the township recalled, “I was doing work [at the neighbor’s] and I said he should get to know [the people at Chai Lifeline].” The contractor, who asked that his name not be used, added, “They’re nice people. What they’re doing is awesome, a beautiful thing,” he added, noting that he does small jobs for the charity at no cost.
The contractor said that he has visited the Goldman River Retreat on many occasions, sometimes daily, and has never seen anything to indicate that the house is being used improperly.
“The town is wrong,” said the contractor. “They’re just using it for single-family use. [The town] is doing something that’s hurting these kids.”
Reached by telephone, Craig Goldman, the former owner of the property, told the Standard that “it is disturbing to have one individual try to stop something so beautiful from happening. It’s horrible.”
The Goldmans owned the house for about 10 years before moving to Mantoloking. “We wanted to donate the house to an organization that would allow the home to be in constant use,” said Goldman. “We were blessed to be in a position to do this, to do something that would give joy to others.”
He said also that he is “disappointed in the Mahwah leadership for bringing it to this point. It could be good for the community,” he said. “The leadership has not handled it well.”
“The township never gave us reasons,” said Scholar. “Our lawyer said this is unprecedented.” He noted that Chai Lifeline “has been maintaining the home at a high cost to make sure it’s at an appropriate level.”
“We deal with a lot of sick kids,” said Scholar. “The Goldmans gave us an incredible gift. It’s a magnificent place to ‘chill out,’ free of charge.”
“We have a waiting list,” he added. “What do we tell the families?”