Florida City, Temple Reach Historic Preservation, Insurance Settlement

September 5, 2014

A settlement has been reached between a South Florida city and a Jewish temple in a long-running legal dispute that pitted religious freedom and property rights against preservation of a historic structure.

Temple B’nai Zion attorney Keith D. Silverstein said this week that the agreement keeps in place the Sunny Isles Beach temple’s historic designation but allows some valuable new development rights. The temple also is being paid $175,000 from the city’s insurance policy.

“This was a well-advocated and negotiated settlement,” Silverstein said. “Both sides felt the settlement was in everyone’s best interests.”

The temple had claimed in the four-year legal fight that Sunny Isles Beach was improperly using its historic designation powers as a pretext to prevent any changes to the building, which was once a Lutheran church and retained some Christian features the Jewish congregation wanted to alter.

The lawsuit was one of several filed around the country under a 2000 federal law barring state and local governments from placing undue burdens on religious expression through land use rules.

Under the agreement, finalized last week by U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams, B’nai Zion will retain its historic designation but some structural changes will be permitted to the building. In addition, the deal gives the temple a development right that can be sold to a third party for a project elsewhere in the city, said Sunny Isles Beach city attorney Hans Ottinot.

“From our standpoint, it’s mutually beneficial,” Ottinot said. “Both parties wanted to resolve what had been a very contentious case.”

The Jewish congregation Beit Rambam, which has been leasing the temple for its services, will be allowed to remain under the deal.

The case, first filed in 2010, was dismissed by Williams originally in 2012 but revived a year later by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeals judges ordered a decision made on the temple’s claim that the historic designation was done for discriminatory reasons and that it interfered with the congregation’s religious practices.

The temple was declared a historic site because of a gathering of about 300 Holocaust survivors there in 2004.

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