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Monday, August 07, 2006

Cooper City challenged over Chabad

Cooper City may be the next Broward municipality embroiled in a fight over zoning rules and the right to religious expression.

BY NIKKI WALLER
nwaller@MiamiHerald.com

Less than a month after Hollywood paid $2 million to settle a suit with an Orthodox synagogue operating in a residential neighborhood, another fight over zoning and religious expression could be brewing in Broward County.

This time, a Cooper City rabbi is challenging that city's zoning rules, which bar houses of worship from operating in commercial areas.

Rabbi Shmuel Posner has tried to open a Chabad outreach center at a storefront in a Griffin Road shopping center for more than a year, but he can't get an occupational license from Cooper City. The city does not permit places of worship in commercial areas, meaning the city has no storefront churches or religious education centers near other businesses.

Posner, who briefly opened the center last year until it was closed down by city code enforcement, says he wants to negotiate with the city and open the center, which would cater to students at Nova Southeastern University.

LAWYER ENLISTED

In case that strategy fails, Posner has enlisted Franklin Zemel, the same attorney who fought the city of Hollywood on behalf of the Hollywood Community Synagogue Chabad Lubavitch, a suit that cost the city $2 million and is forcing leaders to rewrite the city's zoning criteria for religious groups.

The steep price being paid by Hollywood could prove costly for other cities, which want to protect neighborhoods and tax revenue, but now must walk a finer line to accommodate the faithful.

In Hollywood, commissioners tried to prevent an Orthodox synagogue from operating in a residential area. The city and the synagogue settled the issue last month, after a fight that lasted nearly five years and strained relations between the city and members of its Orthodox community.

Cooper City's stance is nearly the opposite of Hollywood's. The city forbids religious institutions, which do not pay property taxes, from operating in commercial areas. It limits houses of worship to parcels with 300 feet or more of frontage, virtually relegating religious institutions to the city's agriculturally zoned areas. Because the tax rates there are lower, the potential tax loss to the city is less.

Zemel has not yet agreed to take on Posner's case, but believes Cooper City's laws amount to discrimination against religious institutions.

``Does it make sense that you can have a Starbucks but not a house of worship?''Zemel said.

LETTER TO MAYOR

In a letter to Cooper City Mayor Debby Eisinger last week, 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.

''I certainly believe that our city's codes are consistent and not discriminatory against any group, religious organization or business,'' Eisinger said. ``We will do what's fair and equitable.''

City Attorney Alan Ruf said the city has hired outside counsel and has been working on the issue for more than a year.

With the new school year at NSU coming up, Posner says he doesn't want a drawn-out legal fight.

''My lawyers told me I have the right to be there, we just have to work it out,'' he said.

Posner's challenge to city codes may not be the only legal side effect of the Hollywood settlement. Zemel said he has been inundated with calls from other religious groups around the country.

''I think this issue is going to be huge,'' said Zemel of city codes and federal compliance. ``It's far more complicated than anybody realized.''

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