Boca Raton: City seeks dismissal of federal suit opposing synagogue project

By Sallie James

    The city has asked a federal court to dismiss a lawsuit that claims Boca Raton officials improperly created a special zoning classification to allow construction of a synagogue on the barrier island.
    The court action is the latest development in an ongoing controversy surrounding plans by Chabad of East Boca to build an 18,000-square-foot synagogue and Israel museum at 770 E. Palmetto Park Road. In May 2015, the city voted to allow Chabad to build a structure that exceeded the 30-foot limit allowed by city code and rise to a height of 40 feet, 8 inches.
    City spokeswoman Chrissy Biagiotti declined comment, citing ongoing litigation.
    The newest motion, filed on March 8 by the city and joined by Chabad, urges the court to dismiss the lawsuit filed by residents Gerald Gagliardi and Kathleen MacDougall. The motion says the city’s actions have “a secular purpose,” “a neutral effect on religion” and “do not excessively entangle government with religion.”
    Gagliardi and MacDougall sued the city on Feb. 4 in federal court seeking to bar the project’s construction. The federal lawsuit claims the pair’s rights to equal protection were violated when the city created a zoning classification that paved the way for the synagogue’s construction, and accuses the city of holding “secret internal and nonpublic discussions” to allow the project.
    Their lawsuit, filed by lawyer Arthur Koski, who is also interim executive director of the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District, seeks costs, attorney fees and compensatory and punitive damages.
    Opponents insist the project, especially the museum, will snarl traffic in an already congested area and claim the increased height of the building will mar the area’s ambience.
    Proponents say the project will increase area property values and disagree that traffic will worsen, noting that congregants walk to services.
    The motion to dismiss states there was no violation of the equal protection clause because the city’s actions were “rationally related to a legitimate government purpose” and because the plaintiffs failed to identify “similarly situated persons.”
    It further states that Gagliardi and MacDougall’s lawsuit fails to identify an “unconstitutional custom or policy” by the city or any basis for compensatory and punitive damages.
    The motion notes that the Establishment Clause of the Constitution prohibits government from promoting or affiliating with any religious organization and concludes that the city’s actions “easily fit within the ‘tension’ created by the ‘establishment’ clause and the ‘free exercise’ clause of the First Amendment.”
    The related motion to dismiss filed by Chabad states that Gagliardi and MacDougall have no standing to file their lawsuit, have not sufficiently proved they suffered personal injury and failed to state an equal protection claim.
    Rabbi Ruvi New has said repeatedly his congregation will not be deterred.
    “We are moving forward with our campaign and excited to be part of the growth and development in east Boca,” New said.
    Boca Raton Deputy Mayor Robert Weinroth said Koski’s participation in the lawsuit “is problematic while [the council and the beach and park district] are trying to work together.”
    Taxes from the beach and park district pay for operating and maintaining some city parks and facilities and also finance some capital projects. Ú

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