The single-family house at the end of Pomeroy Street in Portland’s Rosemont neighborhood doesn’t seem out of the ordinary.
It’s bigger than many of its neighbors, and certainly newer, but other than that – and several cars sitting in its long driveway – it appears to be no more out of the ordinary than the new development of homes down the street.
But neighbors of the home at 11 Pomeroy St. say it’s more than just a house, and what’s going on at the property is far from appropriate for the neighborhood.
Jeff Emerson, treasurer of the Redlon Park Road Association, a subdivision that sits behind the Pomeroy property, said the owners of the house – the Hasidic Jewish outreach group Chabad of Maine and its leader, Rabbi Moshe Wilansky – are providing services beyond the scope of what is permitted in a residential neighborhood.
Emerson said the expansion has resulted in increased noise and traffic and violates city zoning ordinances.
“What began as an 8,000- or 10,000-square-foot home developed into a multipurpose, almost commercial operation in a residential neighborhood, which provides religious services, kosher food, lodging, and summer camps for kids,” Emerson said.
Chabad of Maine is part of an international organization and makes no effort to conceal the services it provides, from offering Jewish travelers a place to stay, community holiday celebrations, weekly religious services, and school and summer camp events for children.
The house is in the R-3 zone, which allows places of assembly as conditional uses. But in recent correspondence, lawyers for the city have told Chabad there are many violations at the Pomeroy address that must be addressed.
In a letter dated Aug. 4, 2020, Associate Corporation Counsel Anne Torregrossa told Wilansky the city deemed many of the activities at Chabad to be in violation of city ordinances. Although the city has attempted to work with the rabbi over the past several years to remedy these issues, the process has been “stalled for quite some time now,” the letter said, and the city expected those remedies to be completed.
“If you are unable, or unwilling, to meet these expectations, the City will have no choice but to issue you a Notice of Violation and to proceed with enforcement measures,” Torregrossa wrote.
Among other things, Torregrossa said Wilansky had to register the home as a short-term rental property no later than Aug. 14, 2020, since it was clear he was renting rooms and suites.
Another requirement was that Wilansky submits a complete, new site plan and conditional use application no later than Oct. 2, 2020. The conditional use change is needed for the increase to more than 15 worshippers on the property at any time.
Chabad previously went before the Planning Board in 2018 for a site plan review workshop and conditional use application for the house to be a place of assembly. The city asked Wilansky to address several concerns in that application before the process could proceed, which he never did.
Torregrossa said he had to reapply and address those concerns, which ranged from improved fire access, transportation concerns, an accurate representation of on-site activities, as well as applying for a permit within two months of site plan approval, a food license, and upgrading the kitchen to commercial standards.
A final requirement is to finalize an addition that included the construction of bedrooms in 2018 and schedule an inspection of it.
City Hall spokesperson Jessica Grondin said the city has been working with Wilansky “for several years” to bring his property into compliance.
“At the end of 2018, he went before the Planning Board for a workshop on his conditional use, and is working on finalizing his application to return to the Planning Board within the next several months,” Grondin said. “The rabbi has already remedied some of the outstanding issues at his property, including stopping food sales and registering his short-term rentals.”
As of Tuesday morning, March 2, Wilansky had not responded to emails and phone calls seeking comment.
But Emerson, who is Jewish, said the seven homeowners in the association are in agreement about Chabad. He said they want to see no more increases to the building’s size, no additional services, a commitment from Wilansky to not purchase surrounding properties in order to expand the organization, and adherence to the limit of no more than 15 people for a religious service.
“Speaking for myself, I believe it was inappropriate to situate a Chabad House in a residential neighborhood,” Emerson said. “That said, we cannot un-ring that bell. It’s done, it’s built.”
Wilansky bought the property in 2004 and completed the building in 2015. Emerson said he’s been trying to get the city to address the situation since 2016, but recently said he has stopped hearing from City Hall, outside of also receiving a copy of Torregrossa’s correspondence to Wilansky last August.
“To our knowledge, they have not ceased and desisted,” he said. “The city no longer responds to my inquiries as to what it’s doing.”
This is not the first time Wilansky has asserted his right to conduct services at a home. In 2008, the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals overturned a decision that prohibited the rabbi from hosting prayer services at his prior home on Craigie Street between Congress Street and Brighton Avenue. At that time the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine came to Wilansky’s defense.
“Even if there is some legitimate complaint, which I would dispute, this is a matter of fundamental religious liberty,” Zachary Heiden, legal director for the ACLU, said at the time.
An ACLU spokesperson said Heiden was not available to discuss the current dispute.