Rabbi Moshe Wilansky inside Chabad of Maine in Portland on Monday. Chabad is seeking a conditional use permit as a place of assembly, but some neighbors have voiced opposition about traffic, noise and other concerns. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The leader of a religious space attached to a single-family home in Portland’s Rosemont neighborhood will have to wait to see if city officials approve his plans to continue hosting gatherings on his property.

At a meeting Tuesday, members of the Planning Board said they didn’t have enough information to make a decision on a conditional use permit.

“The events are already happening and there’s not a good way to say or not say if we do or don’t think it will cause more of an impact on the neighborhood – because we don’t have a clear picture of what is actually wanting to be done,” said Planning Board Chair Maggie Stanley.

The board voted to table a decision on a permit to allow the space on the property to be used as a place of assembly for the Chabad Lubavitch of Maine after hearing from several residents with concerns about the permit as well as supporters of the Jewish religious and community space attached to the home of Rabbi Moshe Wilansky.

“We want to be good neighbors and we have been good neighbors,” Wilansky told the board. “‘Not in my backyard. Everything is good but not in my backyard.’ That’s basically what the neighbors are saying.”

The board’s consideration of the permit allowing for on-site gatherings of more than 15 people is the latest development in an effort by the city to bring the center into compliance with code.

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In 2020, the city issued a letter to Wilansky saying he was out of compliance on several items and that he needed to register short-term rental units, complete a new site plan application and conditional use application and upgrade the kitchen to a commercial kitchen if he was going to be selling food.

The city also said Wilansky could continue to host religious services of no more than 49 people as long as he worked to bring the space at 11 Pomeroy St. into compliance. Representatives of Chabad met with city staff in June 2021 and the conditional use application initially came to the board last October.

Several neighbors have voiced concerns about noise and traffic problems that they say the space is already creating and that they fear will only grow worse. The site is located in a low-density residential zone where a “place of assembly” is permitted but only on a conditional basis.

“I’m not against people coming together, but I am against a residential neighborhood being used in a nonresidential way,” resident Jessica Teesdale told the board. “I don’t understand why a space can’t be found outside of a neighborhood for these wonderful meetings to happen.”

Judy Richard, who lives on Benjamin Way, a relatively new street that was approved by the board as part of a subdivision in 2018, said the plans for the gathering space are vague. “We don’t have any reassurances as to what is going on with the noise levels,” Richard said.

Chris MacDonald, who spoke at the meeting on behalf of Chabad, said that while there have been instances in the past where summer camps were held on Pomeroy Street during the pandemic, the plans going forward are for them to be held off-site. MacDonald also said some larger Chabad events already are held in other places.

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“It may be a misconception that everything that happens here is related to the worship services,” MacDonald said. “The rabbi has a large family and many friends and there are many residential uses that happen here that would not be subject to the conditional use.”

Marshall Tinkle, an attorney who also spoke for Chabad, said it has been “extremely rare” for the space to host more than 15 people and he does not expect numbers to increase.

But Kevin Kraft, the city’s deputy director of planning and urban development, said the numbers presented were “news to us.”

“The project was previously described as exceeding that 15 person limit. …” Kraft said. “In the previous workshop we talked about this as well, that guests typically exceed 15, sometimes in the range of 20.”

Board members raised concerns about some of the issues cited in the 2020 letter as well as about how information about accommodations and meals on Chabad of Maine‘s website might fall under city regulation.

“My fear here is we don’t have a full picture of what’s going on and I want to give the applicant an opportunity to respond, …” said board Vice Chair Brandon Mazer. “I don’t think the application before us incorporates the kitchen or the sleeping rooms. Not to say I’m opposed to those things, but what I’m seeing versus what’s being told to us versus what’s actually happening and what the neighbors are saying seem to be three or four different stories.”

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