Supporters 'Turn Out
West Bloomfield planners finally approve Friendship Circle's amended site plan.
SHELLI LIEBMAN DORFMAN
mpassioned and emotional pleas
by supporters of the Friendship
Circle led to an Oct. 23 post-
midnight unanimous approval
of the site plan for their new buildings
by the West Bloomfield Township
Although the seven-member board
never disputed the significance of the
West Bloomfield-based facility, which
provides assistance to families of chil-
dren having special needs, a request for _
approval of an amended site plan has
been in discussion for more than a year.
An original plan for construction of
four buildings on the Lubavitch
Foundation's Campus of Living Judaism
in West Bloomfield had been approved
in 1995, but a change in the Friendship
Circle's planned use of the land caused
much debate during numerous plan-
ning commission meetings.
"Originally, there was going to be a
retreat center, a dormitory, a museum
and the Daniel B. Sobel Friendship
House," said Rabbi Levi Shemtov,
director of the 8-year-old Friendship
Circle, which now meets in various
locations. "From those facilities, the
only one we are still planning to build
is the 2,000-square-foot Friendship
House," he said, describing it as a safe
haven for individuals in crisis and
their families to discuss personal con-
cerns with a rabbi.
"And in part of the space we would
have used for the other three build-
ings, we want to put the 20,000-
square-foot Meer Family Friendship
had changed since the initial request
for permission to build.
Had the Friendship Circle group gone
ahead with the original building plan
from 1995, they would have been per-
mitted to build regardless of tree loss.
But because their amended building
plans were presented to the township's
planning commission after the tree
loss, some on the board wanted to
view the new plans in light of the cur-
rent state of the land — a site where
the Friendship Circle already had
removed the 25 percent of trees allow-
able by the township. Other trees were
destroyed in the flood.
Michael Perlman, the attorney rep-
resenting the Friendship Circle, argued
powerfully for approval of the new
plan. He said the loss of trees was not
the fault of his clients, that the
new- plan would use less land
and destroy no trees.
While Perlman focused on
logistics, site plans and legalities,
many of the dozens of
Friendship Circle supporters and
volunteers, who waited nearly
five hours for their turn, spoke
Andy Jacobs of West
Bloomfield, a Friendship Circle
founder, pleaded with the board
Above: Attorney Michael Perlman speaks to the
members to review what they
know about Friendship Circle
and its impact on children and
Top, from left: Brynie Croner, 19, and Julian
its proposed Ferber-Kaufman
Wendrow listen to the discussion; Rabbi Yisrael
Life Town. The facility would
Pinson and Rabbi Levi Shemtov of the
be built to mimic the "real
Friendship Circle sit in on the Planning
world," to let the children prac-
Commission meeting; Sarah Lerner, 20, takes
tice activities of daily living, like
notes during the meeting, while Keila
banking and cooking.
Krasnjanski, 19, looks on.
Center." This would be the primary
facility for the Friendship Circle.
Between the time when the original
plan for the four buildings was
approved and the new plan for the
two buildings was presented, wetland
areas near the proposed construction ,
site were flooded, causing trees to die.
"The [West Bloomfield] Township
records show the trees died in 1997,"
Rabbi Shemtov said. "We weren't even
under construction yet at that time. It
took us a year and tens of thousands of
dollars to prove we didn't kill the trees.
At that time, the Friendship Circle was
in the process of clearing the land.
Even after a determination was
made that the tree loss was caused by
other factors, the issue remained that
the environmental status of the land
Julian Wendrow of West Bloomfield,
the parent of an autistic daughter,
offered a reminder of weighing the
importance of a tree against a child. He
cited a New York Times article Perlman
distributed to board members about
the importance of early intervention in
therapy and guidance for children with
autism. He discussed the connection
Friendship Circle was initiating with
the West Bloomfield School District,
where his daughter is a student.
Following heartfelt words from sup-
porters, board members Lawrence
Brown and Stuart Brickner offered their
insights into the benefits of the facility.
"While I understand the emotions
involved here, I also have an obligation
to the township to protect the environ-
ment," said Brickner who, along with
fellow board members, agreed to a
motion that could encompass both.
Brickner's move to approve the new
site plan included getting a good-faith
agreement from Perlman to meet with
the township's wetland and woodland
boards to discuss if remediation will be
necessary. The entire commission then
voted in support of recommending
their decision to the township's board.
At that point, the sleepy Town Hall
township boardroom became loud, with
rousing applause and cries of "mazel tov."
Already a year behind the Friendship
Circle's construction schedule, Rabbi
Shemtov says that following the hoped-
for approval by the township board, at
a mid-November meeting, building
construction permits will be requested.
"The entire evening was really emo-
tional," Rabbi Shemtov said.
"In my mind, this was never a ques-
tion of "if" we would be able to build
our building, but "when," he said.
'And timing is everything to these
kids. We can't replace the benefits they
would have received if we'd been able
to build a year ago," he said. "It is for
the children who now won't have to
wait, that we celebrate." ❑