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Jackson house of worship proposal carried at applicant’s request

JACKSON – Several hours of testimony regarding an applicant’s plan to construct a house of worship and a building that would house a mikvah (ritual bath) on a Whitesville Road property ended without a decision during the Aug. 17 meeting of the Jackson Zoning Board of Adjustment.

Instead, the application of 26 Whitesville Road, LLC, was carried to the zoning board’s Dec. 21 meeting for additional discussion and a possible vote by board members.

26 Whitesville Road, LLC, has applied to the zoning board for permission to demolish two existing structures at 26 Whitesville Road, Jackson, and to construct a house of worship as the primary use on the 2.44-acre site and a smaller building that would house the mikvah as an accessory use.

The property is on Whitesville Road between East Veterans Highway and Calendula Court.

The applicant was following a two-step process known as a bifurcated application.

During the first step of the two-step process, the applicant was seeking relief from several municipal setback requirements. The applicant’s representatives said the setback relief was needed due to the property’s triangular shape.

In the bifurcated application process, the applicant is not required to present a fully engineered site plan. A fully engineered site plan would be presented to the zoning board if the applicant receives the variances and returns at a later date to seek site plan approval.

Instead, the applicant was permitted to present a less detailed site plan on Aug. 17 and several aspects of that site plan caused concern for board members.

The application was heard by Chairman Scott Najarian, Vice Chairwoman Lynne Bradley, Steve Costanzo, Jeanine Fritch, Samara O’Neill, James Hurley and John Pejoski.

The board members’ concerns included parking at the site, pedestrian access to the property, provisions for the collection of garbage and how emergency vehicles would reach the building at the rear of the property that would house the mikvah.

According to the website myjewishlearning.com, “Jewish law requires that one immerse in a mikvah as part of the process of conversion to Judaism. It also requires women to immerse before getting married and when observing the laws of menstrual purity.”

Attorney Donna Jennings represented 26 Whitesville Road, LLC. Testimony was presented by Mordechai Hirsch, a member of the corporation, planner Ian Borden and traffic engineer John Rea.

During her introductory comments, Jennings said a house of worship has been deemed to be an inherently beneficial use to a community. She said the proposed house of worship is a permitted conditional use in the RG-2 zone where it is proposed.

Previous testimony regarding the application was presented during a meeting on March 16.

On Aug. 17, Hirsch said the application has since been modified. Specifically, instead of converting an existing structure at the property into a house of worship, the applicant will construct a new 3,000-square-foot house of worship at the site.

“There is a need to service a larger neighborhood,” Hirsch said, adding that in the upcoming years more than 100 homes will be constructed on Whitesville Road between East Veterans Highway and South Hope Chapel Road.

Hirsch said daily services on weekdays would be held in the morning and in the evening. A Saturday morning service would be held from 9-11 a.m., with another service on Saturday evening.

The entrance to the house of worship would face the rear of the property. The sanctuary at the front of the building would face east toward Whitesville Road, but there would not be direct access into the sanctuary from that side of the building.

Hirsch said many congregants would make a 10-minute to 15-minute walk from their homes to the house of worship. He detailed a 25-hour period when vehicle use is prohibited; from just before sunset on Friday until after sunset on Saturday.

During that time, some congregants will park their vehicle at the site on Friday evening, walk home from services, walk to the house of worship on Saturday morning, walk home following services, walk back for Saturday evening services and then drive home following services, according to Hirsch.

During his testimony, Borden said an existing residential building and an existing commercial building on the property would both be demolished to create space for the house of the worship and the mikvah. Access to the property would only be from Whitesville Road.

“We want to make the plan conform (to municipal ordinances) to the maximum extent possible,” Borden said.

He described the constraints that led to the need for the setback variances and why, from a planning perspective, he believes the variances can be granted by the board without negative impact to the township.

Borden clarified that a house of worship is not prohibited in the RG-2 zone. He said the parking requirement will be met and charging stations for electric vehicles will be provided. The site would be served by public water and public sewer, or septic if sewer cannot be provided.

Traffic engineer John Rea provided testimony regarding the application and said the house of worship’s driveway on Whitesville Road would operate at a C level of service (on a scale of A, the highest level of service, to F, the lowest level of service) during weekday peak hours.

Rea said no parking will be allowed on Whitesville Road, which is an Ocean County road. In addition, curbs and sidewalks would be installed on Whitesville Road.

Regarding pedestrian safety, he suggested it may be possible to install a crosswalk at a location on Whitesville Road to help facilitate road crossings.

Following the conclusion of testimony from Hirsch, Borden and Rea, Jennings, the applicant’s attorney, asked the board members to consider approving the requested variances as the first step in the development process.

Jennings said if that request was granted, the applicant would return with a fully engineered site plan that would address the issues the board members raised during the public hearing.

Hurley said he was not in favor of considering the plan as a bifurcated application and he discussed specific details of a conditional use in the zone. He said he could not vote for an approval without having a detailed site plan.

Among Hurley’s concerns were the parking and internal circulation on the property.

Fritch said she was specifically concerned about how emergency vehicles would reach the building that contains the mikvah.

The applicant owns an adjoining property, but Jennings said the applicant would not combine the two lots to create an oversized parcel for the proposed house of worship, as some board members requested.

Creating an oversized lot would negate the need for variances, according to the board members.

As board members continued to express their concerns about the application, Jennings, at 11 p.m., requested and was granted a five-minute break to confer with her client.

When the meeting resumed, Jennings asked for the application to be carried before the board members voted on the request for variances. She said the applicant would put a fully engineered site plan on the record when it returns before the board.

The board members agreed to the attorney’s request and no motion was made or voted on to approve or to deny the variances. The two parties agreed to carry the 26 Whitesville Road, LLC, application to the zoning board’s Dec. 21 meeting.

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