CSL council split on city land sale to synagogue

Councillor Dida Berku, seated next to Councillor Steven Erdelyi, makes her case.

Côte St. Luc council voted 5-3 to approve the sale of city land at its Public Works facility for $500,000 to the Fondation Sepharade Kollel Avrechim, for a new synagogue.

Councillors David Tordjman, Sidney Benizri, Mike Cohen, Oren Sebag and Mitch Kujavsky voted in favour. Councillors Dida Berku, Ruth Kovac and Steven Erdelyi were opposed.

In 2017, CSL cancelled a plan to build the synagogue elsewhere on Mackle Road after 23 residents signed a register calling for a referendum. The new location was then proposed.

"I am proud to see a community that has outgrown their home and is in need of another home, a home we'll be proud to see built," Tordjman said of the April 8 vote.

Berku said the city has tolerated tax-exempt places of worship that did not comply with zoning, and that in 2015 the congregation had agreed to trade their non-conforming Parkhaven tax-exempt residence for a legally zoned [synagogue] on Mackle," the one that was cancelled.

Now, "the very least the city should request is that the Kollel give up their main establishment on Parkhaven as was agreed in 2015 and also the other properties which house the so-called rabbis in residence.

"Not to do so is to give the Kollel an unfair advantage over other established and non-conforming synagogues and all the taxpayers of CSL. This is a very bad precedent. Not only are we tolerating non-conforming uses and allowing them to be exempt of taxes, but we are rewarding one institution in particular over all others and all taxpayers of CSL."

Sebag said the congregants have waited patiently for years, new religious institutions should be welcomed, and that previous councils did not deal with the issue of "pop-up synagogues" that do not have proper zoning. There are safety issues as well, he added.

"I'm in favour of grandfathering those [homes] that make the necessary renovations, to make them safe.... Let me be clear — I will be the first councillor to show up at a pop-up synagogue that does not have proper zoning or safety measures... and I will make sure to push this council to actually shut it down."

Erdelyi said he had hoped the Kollel's 2015 agreement to convert the tax-exempt properties into regular residences would have carried over to now.

"Given there is no agreement for this new property, I must vote against."

Kovac said it is a matter of real estate, that the increasing population in CSL will have an impact on the aged Public Works facility, which needs to be rebuilt.

"We as a city are not being mindful of the fact that we will need it for future growth," she explained, adding that the congregation does not consider the planned synagogue to be large enough for their needs. "Then why go forward with this? And where will the religious community park?"

"How much longer can we make this community wait? Cohen asked.

Mayor Mitchell Brownstein said the congregation provides valuable services to the community.

"The Kollels have operated illegally, they weren't in the right zone, although they got tax-exempt status legally," he said. "We are a city of tolerance, and allowed it to go on. Now we are trying to make things legal."

The congregation's spiritual leader Rabbi Yehouda Benoliel, at the council meeting with numerous congregants, responded that the 2015 agreement was for a synagogue that was to be "the proper size."

"We'll take what we can take, but this problem can be fixed by being offered a property big enough for our community," he added.

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