Synagogue settlement to be heard tonight after selectmen give limited approval

The settlement of a federal lawsuit that could well pave the way for the Greenwich Reform Synagogue to build on Orchard Street in Cos Cob took a small step forward this morning but the true test will be Thursday night.

The Board of Selectmen gave its approval to a section of the proposed settlement between the synagogue and the town, but only in a limited capacity specifically applied to one paragraph of the agreement. The agreement in its entirety, which is still being worked on, is expected to be formally submitted Thursday night for a vote before the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals. The meeting, which will take place at Town Hall, will begin with an executive session not open to the public at 6 p.m. so the board can meet with town counsel and the public meeting is expected to begin at 7 p.m.

The agreement would bring an end to the synagogue’s suit against the town and also seemingly clear a major hurdle toward building the synagogue on Orchard Street, which has raised the ire of neighbors who say they don’t want the development inside an otherwise residential neighborhood.

This lawsuit from the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) denying a special exception that the Greenwich Reform Synagogue was seeking for its plan to build a new synagogue on Orchard Street by a two to two margin with one abstention. That spurred the synagogue to file suit against the town in the United States District Court for Connecticut, citing the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and claiming they had been unfairly discriminated against. As part of its suit, the synagogue said that the ZBA had approved churches in several residential neighborhoods throughout town.

Under the proposed settlement, the ZBA would within 10 days after the agreement becomes official issue the special exception and modifications would be made to the plan. The number of parking spaces at the proposed synagogue would be increased to 52 from 46 including two handicapped spaces, the driveway would be shifted from the southern portion of the property to the northern portion and the overall size of the proposed building would be reduced by approximately 2,100 cubic feet. The synagogue will also withdraw its suit against the town as part of the settlement.

The selectmen discussed the proposed settlement in open session at its Oct. 2 meeting, breaking with past practice of reviewing the case in executive session before returning to a public session to make a vote. First Selectman Peter Tesei said that the unprecedented step was taken due to the public interest in the case. Both supporters and opponents of the project filled the meeting room to hear the selectmen debate.

The selectmen’s approval was limited to just one paragraph of the multi-page agreement. The selectmen were not voting on the agreement as a whole but rather page four paragraph B which said, essentially, that the selectmen would not do anything outside the typical and required approval process for this project. Both Mr. Tesei and Selectman Drew Marzullo said this was nothing the Board of Selectmen wouldn’t have done otherwise and special town counsel John Wetmore agreed, saying this was insisted by the synagogue in the settlement just to provide proper standing should the case have to ever return to federal court.

Without that one paragraph the selectmen would not have to have been involved at all and the decision would have been made entirely by the Zoning Board of Appeals. Town Attorney Wayne Fox indicated on Thursday details of the settlement are still being worked on but the consideration and vote is still on the agenda for the Thursday night meeting.

The selectmen initially voted by a two to one margin in favor of the agreement with Selectman David Theis voting against it. Mr. Theis had previously recused himself from the discussion due to previously stated objection to placing the synagogue on Orchard Street and at Thursday’s meeting he again stressed his recusal. When the fact that his vote was registered against the agreement was noted by Jonathan Perloe, who had attended in support of the synagogue, the selectmen revoted so Mr. Theis could formally abstain, meaning the final vote was two for it and no one opposed, with the one abstention.

Now the case is in the hands of the Zoning Board of Appeals which will have to consider the agreement as a whole and the meeting tonight is expected to be packed with interested parties. There will be an attempt by opponents of the project to delay the vote, however, given that the meeting takes place the same time as Cos Cob School’s open house, meaning not everyone who wants to attend the meeting will be able to.

Sarah Littman presented a petition to the selectmen urging them to get the Zoning Board of Appeals to delay the meeting.

“These are people in our neighborhood who are being denied due process,” Ms. Littman said. “They cannot come to speak at the meeting tonight. We are a community and as community members we go to our school’s open houses. That’s what parents do. Why this meeting had to be scheduled tonight, you can’t help but wonder and you can understand why we members of the neighborhood are not happy about it. I would ask you to use your influence to move this meeting to another night so we can have a fair hearing.”

However, Mr. Tesei said that the selectmen could not act on the request given that it was not its jurisdiction to get the board to delay the meeting. Mr. Theis made a motion asking for a week’s delay from the Zoning Board of Appeals but it did not receive a second from Mr. Tesei or Mr. Marzullo.

“I can’t impose my will on them and neither can these gentlemen,” Mr. Tesei said, while noting that Ms. Littman was making a good point about the inconvenience of the timing. “There’s nothing I can do to get them to change it. We can certainly say is that they shouldn’t have had it on that night.”

Wendy Schreiber, co-president of the Greenwich Reform Synagogue, said the congregation would be turning out in large numbers for the board’s meeting Thursday night, despite being in the middle of preparations for Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement which begins Friday night. She said it would be unfair to push the decision back when the project has already endured so many delays due to the town approval process.

“The timing of the meeting happens to be in the middle of the holiest holiday in the Jewish calendar,” Ms. Schreiber said. “It’s a little bit of an imposition for us but what would be more of an imposition for us is to once again delayed, delayed, delayed.”

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