City lawyer defends rules to Chabad

Cooper City officials say they have sure footing in their decision to bar a Jewish group from operating a religious center out of a storefront.

Miami Herald/August 11, 2006
By Todd Wright

Cooper City officials aren't backing down from a synagogue that wants to challenge the city's zoning rules, even if it means facing a religious discrimination lawsuit.

But they are at least willing to talk it out.

That's what a letter from city attorneys to attorney Franklin Zemel said Thursday. Zemel is representing Rabbi Shmuel Posner, who has been trying to set up a Chabad outreach center in a Griffin Road shopping center for years.

Zemel recently won a zoning case in Hollywood, which awarded a Chabad synagogue $2 million and the right to operate a house of worship in a residential area.

No assembly rule

Cooper City's letter stressed that city staff had continually told Posner that he could not be located on its business corridor, which restricts any houses of worship or other place of assembly.

The zoning rule "does not treat religious institutions on less than equal terms than a non-religious assembly," wrote John Naclerio III, an assistant city attorney.

The city limits houses of worship to parcels with 300 feet or more of frontage, virtually relegating religious institutions to the city's agriculturally zoned areas.

The city restricts religious groups because they are tax exempt and don't generate funds for city coffers, Zemel said.

"I am dying to hear how the city is going to explain to me how this is not discrimination," he said. "I am happy the city has at least agreed to sit down and talk it out. My sense is that they are going to deal with this with a more open mind than others."

Zemel shared his opinion in a letter to Mayor Debby Eisinger on July 26. He had requested the city respond to his request for a meeting within 10 days of the letter, but city attorneys did not send a response until Wednesday.

Violations alleged

Zemel wrote that the city's codes violate the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal act that protects religious expression in land-use and zoning disputes. He used the same argument against Hollywood officials and eventually scored an overwhelming victory for the Hollywood Community Synagogue Chabad Lubavitch.

Posner, who briefly opened the center last year until it was closed down by city code enforcement, says he'd rather negotiate than go to court for the right to open a center, which would cater to students at Nova Southeastern University.

No meeting date

No date has been set for the two sides to meet.

"The city is clearly not treating places of worship on equal terms because they don't pay taxes," Zemel said. "It's a punishment and they are clearly discriminating."

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