Rockville board OK’s Chabad house’s increased use

A screenshot of planning commission chair Charles Littlefield at Wednesday’s hearing. He voted in favor of the Chabad Center’s proposal.
A screenshot of planning commission chair Charles Littlefield at Wednesday’s hearing. He voted in favor of the Chabad Center’s proposal.

After four hearings over three months, the Rockville City Planning Commission on Wednesday approved the Rockville’s Chabad Israel Center’s bid to expand its activities at its location in the Rollins Park neighborhood.

“This is a wonderful victory,” said Steve VanGrack, lawyer for the Chabad Center and a former mayor of Rockville. “We achieved our goal of allowing the Chabad Israel Center to have a chance to operate as a synagogue should.”

Under the terms of the agreement the Chabad Center will limit the times it operates to a weekly schedule, religious holidays and lifecycle events.

The staff of the planning commission had recommended that the commission reject the Chabad Center’s original plan to expand its activities because it considered the proposed activities too disruptive to the neighborhood. The Chabad Center has since scaled back its proposed hours of activities and formulated a plan to address parking, one of neighbors’ main concerns. A local apartment complex and a law office have volunteered to allow members of the Chabad Center to park on their property.

The commissioners voted in favor of the Chabad Center’s proposal 4-1. Commission Chair Charles Littlefield said the case was “a difficult item to work through,” but that he ultimately voted to allow the increase in activities in large part because of the principle of religious freedom. “We need to put that value [of religious freedom] into practice,” he said.

“Over the last four meetings we have put condition upon condition upon condition and asked question upon question upon question,” said Gail Sherman, another commissioner who voted in favor of the Chabad Center’s proposal. She added that in her year and a half on the commission she had never seen an applicant meet so many requests.

“Though these hearings have been tremendously taxing, it has also brought to light the beauty and passion of the Israeli community and the greater Jewish community,” said Chabad Center Rabbi Shlomo Beitsh. “We’ve been so lovingly supported.”

Anne Goodman, the one commissioner who voted against the Chabad Center’s proposal, said she “didn’t buy the argument” that the Chabad Center’s expansion wouldn’t adversely affect the surrounding community, citing concerns about noise, parking and increased “stress on the neighborhood.”

“While I appreciate and revere the importance of religious freedom, I feel like there needs to be a balance that and the concerns of the neighborhood,” she said.

VanGrack acknowledged that the Chabad Center should seek to find a new location. “I told [Rabbi Beitsh] after the hearing, your synagogue is becoming too popular. You absolutely need to find a new place to house your congregation.”

As part of its proposal, the Chabad Center appointed a community liaison, who is a member of the congregation and lives nearby. The Chabad Center lawyers also agreed to apply for a permit to use the top floor of the home for religious purposes. But VanGrack called this step “just a matter of paperwork.”

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