Debate heats up as Côte St. Luc tackles issue of illegal home-based shuls

5748-50 Av. Parkhaven in Cote St. Luc is one of the home-based synagogues the city says does not conform with its bylaws.

Just how divisive the issue of the growing number of illegal home-based synagogues in Côte St. Luc has become was clear at a public consultation held on June 20.

The city council held the meeting to explain its intention to oblige these shuls to regularize their status or find another legal location.

Residents in favour of the bylaw complained of the noise, traffic, parking and garbage problems caused by places of worship and study establishing themselves in their neighbourhoods. Those opposed felt the city was insensitive to the needs of these congregations, which are Orthodox and largely Sephardi, and fear that these shuls will be shut down.

Mayor Mitchell Brownstein cautioned at the meeting’s outset that “the world is watching” how Côte St. Luc handles this delicate issue, given that the city’s population is 73 per cent Jewish and that he and all eight councillors are Jewish.

“We all share the same values, though some are more practising than others…We are supposed to be an example to the world of ethical behaviour,” he said.

Brownstein stressed the necessity of mutual respect as the city begins the lengthy process of resolving a situation the council considers has gotten out of hand due to previous administrations’ tolerating synagogues setting up in private dwellings.

Home-based shuls have existed in Côte St. Luc for more than 30 years, but were few and small until recently. Brownstein said that there are now 17 known Jewish congregations in the city of about 35,000, of which a half-dozen are “non-conforming.”

Brownstein said the intention is to work with all concerned parties to find the best solution.

“If the city wanted to shut down (these shuls), we could have done so already under the law,” said Brownstein, who added that the longer-term goal is to find a way to accommodate the religious groups, while respecting the rights of all residents.

For now, he urged all non-conforming places to “to take advantage of this opportunity to get legal zoning and stay where they are.”

In April, the council tabled a draft of Bylaw 2596 that sets out the mechanism for time-limited spot rezoning of a property in a residential zone for institutional use. Residents in a defined area nearby, however, would have the final say.

Two councillors voted against it, one of them, Lior Azerad, saying it “targeted the Orthodox community.”

Applicants will also have to show they can meet safety and health standards, such as building and occupancy codes, and that the use and character of the building is compatible with the surroundings.

Each of these shuls would have to make an application, with feasibility studies and costing attached, to the urban planning department. The submission would then be reviewed by the planning advisory committee that makes recommendations to council.

Similar to any rezoning request, each case would go through a public consultation process with a register opened for anyone wishing to have a referendum. The council could only finally approve it if eligible residents give it the green light, but Brownstein said council hopes referenda can be avoided.

If the congregation moves to a different location, the city can withdraw authorization for non-residential use.

The draft bylaw names five residential zones where owners of properties now used as shuls which would be eligible to apply: two are on Eldridge and one each on Léger, Parkhaven, Heywood and Baily streets. Any new place of worship or religious study wishing to open in these or other residential zones will have to follow the same procedure.

To address those illegal shuls that do not apply or aren’t able to achieve the needed support among residents, the city is looking for potential alternate locations in commercial zones. In May, the council adopted a bylaw allowing four commercial buildings, mostly shopping centres, to rent or give space to religious institutions.

Councillor Mitch Kujavsky, whose portfolio is urban planning, said, “We are here today because the city has not done its job for many years… Unfortunately, it did not enforce the bylaws and that’s unfair to residents, religious congregations and future administrations.”

During the question period, a 28-year resident said he believes the council does not appreciate that Côte St. Luc’s demographics have changed, that the number of Orthodox and Sephardic Jews in increasing and may soon be the majority.

Kujavsky said the city is developing a master plan that foresees possibly creating mixed-use zones where buildings could house residents, businesses and religious institutions. There is almost no more land available for new construction, he said.

A woman said she had little confidence that the city would enforce any new bylaw because it is not enforcing the existing ones, and dismissed Kujavsky’s assertion that the council has “full faith” that these shuls will comply if they do not get rezoning or follow the plans they submitted, if they do.

Another man said he finds it ironic that “that in the month the City of Montreal unanimously adopted Jewish heritage month, our Jewish council has started a process that could close some of our Jewish institutions.”