Kingsbury synagogue prompts legal challenge

Chabad at Lake Tahoe is located on Kingsbury Grade.

Chabad at Lake Tahoe is located on Kingsbury Grade.
Photo by Kurt Hildebrand.

A change in the ordinance recommended by planning commissioners on Tuesday may head off an appeal of the county’s approval of a synagogue on Kingsbury.

At issue is a matrix that allows membership organizations in the Stateline mixed use zoning as a matter of right but requires religious organizations to obtain a special use permit.

“For example, Rotary Club could be permitted as a matter of right within the mixed-use zone to operate and conduct their affairs while a religious organization could not,” Deputy District Attorney Sam Taylor. The Elks could use the property as a matter of right, bars and restaurants permitted as a matter of right.”

Taylor said county officials noticed that there was very little difference between the two uses, raising the issue that perhaps the code discriminated against religious organizations.

“When staff was examining other permitted uses within the T-MU/Town Center zoning district they noticed that there was striking similarity between the definition of “religious assembly” and membership organizations” set out in … Douglas County Code,” he wrote. “In sum, staff was at a loss to explain to the applicant why membership organizations were allowed as a matter of right, but religious assemblies were not since the community impacts were similar.”

Taylor said that on June 27, the county was served with a petition for judicial review for reconsideration of the May approval of the permit.

“It is highly likely given the statements by the Chabad’s attorney that the issue of whether or not Douglas County has violated Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act will be part of the litigation,” he said. “If this amendment is approved it would likely render the appeal of the board’s decision moot thereby avoiding the unnecessary burden and expense of such litigation.”

Two shops located in the building have fought having Chabad Lake Tahoe in their building since the issue was first heard by the Planning Commission earlier this year.

They say that between the Kingsbury General Improvement District’s use and their own, there isn’t sufficient parking for the synagogue. After planning commissioners approved a special use permit in February, the synagogue purchased the building for $2.5 million.

Blue Sky Events and Talie Jane Interiors appealed planning commissioners’ approval of the synagogue to county commissioners. Commissioners voted 3-2 to overturn the planning commission at their April 7 meeting, just eight days before Passover.

However, the synagogue appealed that decision and on May 6 commissioners reversed their decision.

Attorney Lew Feldman pointed out the Chabad could conduct cultural activities in the location, but to have religious services, they would require a special use permit.

“We would not need a special use permit for a cultural event,” Feldman said at the commission’s April 7 meeting. “We need a permit to pray.”

Under the approval, the synagogue was required to obtain the agreement for off-site parking for weekday special events during working hours.

Planning commissioners said they believed that the problems with parking are endemic to the Tahoe Basin and not just the site on Kingsbury Grade and therefore shouldn’t be a deciding factor.

In the end, commissioners agreed that any business occupying the space proposed by the Chabad would cause the same parking issues.

Douglas County commissioners would have to approve the ordinance change.


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