Ocean Township is proposing a land use ordinance that will allow religious and other parochial education facilities that house students be placed in the township’s industrial/office park area at the western end of Sunset Avenue without the need for a use variance.
“It will not zone these uses out but allows us to be better prepared in the future. I think it is a step in the right direction to help keep our residential neighborhoods strictly residential,” Mayor Christopher Siciliano said earlier this week.
The ordinance was introduced at the last Township Council meeting and a public hearing date is to be announced.
The ordinance creates a zone where adult parochial schools, like a recent controversial yeshiva housing college-age students, would be a permitted use. The ordinance does not preclude an applicant from seeking to place a similar school elsewhere in the township but it will eliminate the need to seek a use variance.
Township Attorney Martin Arbus said the ordinance is a direct result of the recent yeshiva application.
“In terms of future issues, it is related to that,” he said.
The ordinance will apply to adult religious or academic parochial schools which provide residence halls or dormitories for boarding students ages 17 or older. The school must be operated on a not-for-profit basis and affiliated with an organization that has such a designation.
The school will have to be on at least a two-acre lot and have setbacks ranging from 50 to 100 feet from any nearby residential unit. Lot coverage cannot exceed 27 percent and buildings will be limited to three stories or 35 feet, whichever is less.
The ordinance also controls the placement of driveways, parking and buffer zones. The maximum number of persons shall be limited to no more than 25 per acre of property, minus required buffers. The number of adult parochial boarding students and staff permitted to remain on the site between the hours of 12 a.m. (midnight) to 6 a.m. shall also be determined by the size of the property,
“Now we have a zone for this use. We previously didn’t and now it will exist in the event someone wants to come in and have this kind of dormitory use. It won’t prevent it but it puts us in a heck of a lot stronger position. There is a lot of area in that zone that would make this work,” Siciliano said.
A federal judge recently approved the creation of a Talmudic Academy to house college-age students at an existing school on Logan Road Ocean Township’s Wanamassa section.
U.S. District Court Judge Freda L. Wolfson ruled that the township’s Board of Adjustment violated federal law when it unanimously voted on April 26 to deny a use variance to Yeshiva Gedola Na’os Yaakov to provide housing for up to 96 college-age students. The judge did, however, limit the number of students to a maximum of 80.
The judge made her decision on the RLUIPA (Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act)- a federal law created in 2000 grants houses of worship and other religious institutions broad protection against discrimination in zoning and land use laws.
Township officials have decided not to appeal the court’s decision- a move that has upset some residents.
Arbus said at the last Township Council meeting that the township “went all out” to defend its position in court and would be “hard-pressed” to reverse the decision, adding that only about 6.4 percent of all federal court appeals are successful.
“Chances aren’t great. You are usually better off not filing an appeal,” he said.
But several residents disagreed and said the township should appeal the decision anyway.
“I am concerned and implore you to please consider an appeal- 6.4 percent isn’t zero,” resident Mary Robin Whitney said.
“The township is disappointed for sure. No one is happy with this decision,” Siciliano said.
But some residents said they still want the decision challenged.
“Being happy is one thing, action is another,” resident Barbara Hudson said.
Siciliano said the decision not to appeal is not because the township cannot afford the legal fees but that any future damages could possibly be in the millions of dollars if the appeal is lost.
According to court records, Yeshiva Gedola has now requested approval for temporary occupancy at the Logan Road site, $900,000 in monetary damages, reimbursement of legal fees, and waivers of site plan approvals and building permits
“Additional damage claims could be astronomical and that’s our concern. Winning the appeal does not have good odds for us to possibly have to pay out that kind of money. The damages could go into the millions and that is our concern- and an appeal could take years while the yeshiva is still in the school,” he said.
Arbus said the yeshiva’s request to seek $1 million in damages will be settled through mediation.