Rockville commission asks for revised proposal for Chabad expansion

Steven Van Grack argues on behalf of the Chabad Center as Rabbi Shlomo Beitsh looks on. Photo by George Altshuler
Steven Van Grack argues on behalf of the Chabad Center as Rabbi Shlomo Beitsh looks on.
Photo by George Altshuler

The Rockville City Planning Commission has again held off on making a decision about whether Rockville’s Chabad Israel Center will be allowed to expand its activities at its location in a residential neighborhood.

Instead, the commission voted Wednesday night to request a simplified and revised weekly schedule of events from the Chabad Center, which is located at 216 Rollins Ave. In a unanimous vote, the commission also reopened the public record in the case and agreed to hear testimony at its Sept. 28 meeting about the Chabad Center’s new proposal, which the Chabad Center must submit by next Tuesday.

“I feel positive about what happened last night,” said Steven Van Grack, a former mayor of Rockville who is one of the lawyers representing the Chabad house pro-bono.

“It seems like the commissioners do want to find a way to allow the Chabad to provide their primary religious services and responsibilities,” he continued.

During Wednesday’s hearing, which lasted until 10 p.m., commission chairperson Charles Littlefield said he thought the detailed schedule that is in the Chabad Center’s current proposal is unenforceable and overly stringent.

“From my perspective, I can’t contemplate this type of regulation,” he said during the hearing, as he read through a detailed weekly schedule of events.

The schedule Littlefield referred to includes morning prayer services, weekly classes and lectures for adults at the Chabad Center, which is run by Rabbi Shlomo Beitsh. Under its current permit, the Chabad Center is only allowed to hold Shabbat services and holiday services at the center (although High Holiday services are held offsite).

The Chabad Center’s request to expand the hours it can operate and increase the number of cars permitted there has proven controversial. The commission’s staff recommended the Chabad Center’s request be denied ahead of a hearing last month because it “would not be compatible with the residential character of this neighborhood.”

At that hearing, which lasted into the early hours of the morning, neighbors testified that the Chabad Center’s expansion would adversely affect their quality of life. A large number of the center’s backers also testified at last month’s hearing and many of those backers were in attendance Wednesday night.

In fact, at one point in last night’s hearing, Commissioner Don Hadley remarked that “the success [of the Chabad Center] has been its problem.”

In a phone interview, Van Grack said that there are limits to how much the Chabad Center can expand its activities in its house on Rollins Avenue, and that the center is looking for new locations.

“Any increase greater than you see here would be for another day and another facility,” said Steven Robbins, another lawyer representing the Chabad Center pro-bono with the law firm Lerch, Early and Brewer.

The Chabad Center and its lawyers have argued that limiting the center’s essential religious functions would be a violation of state and federal law, and they have hinted that they will file a lawsuit should the planning commission deny their request. Still, Van Grack explained that the Chabad Center is trying avoid a confrontational approach.

“I think our approach is conciliatory,” Van Grack said. “We’re trying to work this out.”

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