Dan Hust | Democrat
SHIRLEY GOODMAN WAS honored at Wednesday’s Bethel Town Board meeting in Kauneonga Lake as the township’s Senior of the Year. Giving her the award is Supervisor Dan Sturm. Congratulating her are, from the left, board members Bob Blais, Denise Frangipane, Dick Crumley and Vicky Vassmer-Simpson.
Bethel continues to debate shul
By Dan Hust
KAUNEONGA LAKE Wednesday’s Bethel Town Board meeting showcased widely divergent views on the controversial synagogue along Schultz Road in White Lake.
Supervisor Dan Sturm kicked off the debate by reading a prepared statement, claiming the shul’s building permit application, filed last October, listed it as a community building.
Under the township’s then-current building code, a community center must undergo planning board review. (A synagogue, which owner United Talmudical Academy [UTA] says the 6,900-square-foot structure is, does not require such review.)
“Nonetheless,” said Sturm, “a building permit was issued, on the basis of severely deficient and non-code-compliant plans; the building built with amazing speed; and the UTA community applied for a certificate of occupancy in July despite the fact that the building was not even complete.”
Sturm and Building Inspector Tim Dexter, however, disagreed on whether or not to issue a certificate, and Sturm directed the township’s engineering firm to independently review Dexter’s files on the shul and several other buildings throughout Bethel.
The engineers’ 20-page report was received by the board that day, said Sturm, so he wouldn’t go into detail about its findings.
In the meantime, a judge ruled that the UTA synagogue could be used for religious purposes only, requiring the UTA to file by September 30 the plans Bethel officials say they require.
“The bottom line is this,” Sturm concluded. “Neither I nor any member of this board will tolerate non-adherence to town laws and codes, non-compliance with the NYS Building Code, or any willful circumvention of our laws or community standards by any town employee.”
He called the site “a nuisance” that could have been avoided with planning board review, but White Lake businesswoman Judith Maidenbaum took issue with that characterization.
“I don’t think it’s a nuisance,” she told Sturm during the meeting. “Would the board prefer these people [stay] in a rickety old fire trap?
“It seems to me you are making a huge issue out of a small problem,” she continued, noting that a synagogue is called a community center in Yiddish.
Maidenbaum also considered Sturm’s investigation into the Building Department a “witch hunt against Tim.”
“It smells bad to me,” she remarked. “This is not personal, Dan, and I’m not calling you anti-Semitic, but what is wrong with this shul?”
Schultz Road resident Lillian Hendrickson replied that she isn’t against a synagogue next door, “but it doesn’t have to be as large a building and that close to the road.”
She complained that buses and trucks going to and from the synagogue have nearly run over her husband.
Maidenbaum, however, felt that “this is definitely a prejudice against a sect of people,” referring to the Hasidics who use the shul.
Hendrickson angrily replied that she’s lived next to the Hasidic bungalow colony for 30 years, and some of her children are Jewish.
“This is very emotional and very hot,” observed Bethel resident JoanMarie Rohrs. “So this has to be decided by the laws of this town and this country. There has to be a common and mutual respect.… Let’s be upfront, and let’s obey the law.”
Mike Schwartz of Kauneonga Lake, however, felt the law was being inequitably applied, saying that if the synagogue were instead an African-American church, “I’d guarantee there wouldn’t be one soul in this town against it.”
That prompted an angry response from Town Councilman Dick Crumley.
“This is nonsense!” he told the audience. “They [UTA] circumvented the process. I don’t care if you’re from Yale or jail, everybody’s got to obey the rules!”
Crumley complained that UTA representatives weren’t working with the town.
“They don’t want to come and talk to us,” he said during the meeting. “They want to be combative.”
The board then voted unanimously to appeal the synagogue’s permit with the Zoning Board of Appeals.
“That will allow us to get the process on the appropriate track,” said Town Councilwoman Denise Frangipane.
But later in the meeting, the debate continued to rage, with Maidenbaum proposing that the recent push by summer residents to increase the Hasidic voting bloc in the township was directly due to the town board’s actions on the shul.
“They could register a thousand voters, and I’m still going to do what I think is right,” replied Sturm.
He promised that the engineers’ report on the Building Department would answer questions, likely by the next board meeting.