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Jewish school rushes to file for city building permits

By Whitney Gould and Mike Nichols
of the Journal Sentinel staff

August 30, 1996

An Orthodox Jewish school scrambled Thursday and beat the clock by filing for building permits for an expansion that could be threatened by an ordinance the Common Council is scheduled to consider Tuesday.

The measure would make it more difficult to locate schools and religious institutions in residential neighborhoods.

But even if city building inspectors issue permits for the Wisconsin Institute for Torah Study, as expected, the acrimonious battle over the east side yeshiva probably won't end there. Neighbors opposed to the 30,000-square-foot rear addition may launch a new challenge to it in court, their lawyer said Thursday.

A major issue is whether the school, 3288 N. Lake Drive, filed for permits in time to be exempt from a proposed ordinance requiring schools and churches to get special-use permits to locate in residential areas. Now, such institutions are considered permitted uses. The change would subject institutional incursions to additional public hearings and neighborhood scrutiny.

"The issuance of a permit would not necessarily mean WITS is grandfathered," said attorney Christopher Hale, who represents Citizens for North Point Preservation. "This is a case where everyone involved will use every legal means available to advance their agenda. The neighbors will do whatever they can to stop the construction."

Lee Jensen, commissioner of building inspection, said his office had up to 15 days to decide whether to issue the permits. But even if the Common Council approves the new ordinance next week, the rules wouldn't take effect for 30 days. And, if Jensen's office approves the school's plans in the meantime, construction could proceed, he said.

It is unclear, however, whether a vote on the ordinance change will actually occur Tuesday. Church leaders from a variety of denominations are ardently opposed, saying the measure would infringe on religious liberty.

Responding to such concerns, Ald. Marvin Pratt said Thursday that he had intended to introduce an amendment that would limit the circumstances under which churches would be included in the zoning change.

"That was my intention," he said. "But I have not been able to fashion anything acceptable to the opponents, and so I'm going to ask that it be referred back to committee."

If that fails, Pratt said he would vote against the measure.

"Right now, it is real close," he said, when asked to predict whether it would pass.

Ald. Michael D'Amato, one of the principal supporters of the ordinance, could not be reached for comment Thursday. He previously has said that the change is needed simply to "allow neighbors to have input on buildings and expansions that would have consequences for the community."

Christopher Kidd, chairman of a group opposed to the ordinance called Protect Our Churches and Schools, worries that existing churches and schools will be affected and that discussions about use of church property with the Board of Zoning Appeals could easily metamorphose into issues of doctrine.

Kidd's group is considering picketing City Hall on Tuesday. He says that thousands of people have signed a petition opposing the ordinance.

As the Torah institute battle has gotten caught up in the larger debate over the role of institutions in neighborhoods, even scraps of paper have become points of contention.

An example is a drawing prepared on Oct. 26, 1994, by the school's architects at Kahler Slater. The drawing, which turned up in a Milwaukee County Circuit Court lawsuit pertaining to the controversy, shows a new 16-car parking lot, dormitory and unidentified third structure on land south of what appears to be a lot line.

Opponents of the school's addition cite the drawing as proof that the school has major expansion plans beyond those already announced.

Nonsense, say school officials. "This was a very, very preliminary drawing when we were just looking at all alternatives," school spokesman Armin Nankin said. "We now have sufficient dormitory space to handle all our future needs" and have no plans to acquire more property, Nankin said.

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