Cooper City's zoning blocks Chabad center

Jewish congregation has lease for center in shopping plaza

South Florida Sun-Sentinel/July 29, 2006
By Thomas Monnay

Cooper City -- Rabbi Shmuel Posner has a lease to open a Chabad Outreach Center in the Timberlake Plaza, but a city code won't let him operate in a commercial district.

"I've been trying to get my [occupational license]," said Posner, of the Chabad of Nova congregation. "They said it's not the right zoning."

After spending three years looking for a south Broward location for his congregation, Posner, 32, of Davie, says he's ready to fight Cooper City, and he's recruiting a lawyer who just successfully represented another Chabad congregation against another Broward County city.

Posner said his troubles started last September, when he placed window signs on a storefront at 8608 Griffin Road to announce the center's opening. Code enforcement officials at first told him the window signs were illegal and then said city codes ban places of worship in commercial districts, he said.

Although he had a temporary permit to provide high holy days services last year, "the city's position is there's no way we're going to give you a permit," Posner said.

Posner has enlisted the help of attorney Franklin Zemel, who earlier this month stopped Hollywood from shutting down a Chabad center in a residential neighborhood.

Zemel wrote to Cooper City Mayor Debby Eisinger on Wednesday and suggested the city retain an independent counsel to ensure its codes comply with the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

The law makes it illegal for municipalities to establish land uses treating religious institutions on less than "equal terms" with non-religious groups.

Eisinger said she forwarded copies of Zemel's letter to City Attorney John Naclerio and city commissioners.

She said she would be willing to meet with Zemel, but added, "I feel that the city's codes are not discriminatory in any way.''

The Hollywood fight started in 2003, after city officials canceled a special permit allowing the group to operate in two single-family homes.

The suit claimed Hollywood discriminated because it allowed other religious organizations in residential areas. The case was settled with Hollywood agreeing to pay the group $2 million.

Posner said a southwest Broward center is needed for nearby Jewish families because their religion forbids them from driving a car from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.

Zemel said cities fear places of worship could take over commercial districts, depriving them of tax revenue because they are nonprofit organizations.

He said Cooper City should change its code, and he wants to meet with city officials to resolve the matter amicably.

"Unlike the situation in Hollywood, we are not looking for a fight with Cooper City," he said. "The last thing in the world we want is another Chabad fight."

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