Residents oppose Cos Cob synagogue construction at hearing

Attorney Mario Cuppola speaks at a January 2013 hearing regarding the proposed Greenwich Reform Synagogue. — Ken Borsuk photo

Attorney Mario Cuppola speaks at a January 2013 hearing regarding the proposed Greenwich Reform Synagogue.
— Ken Borsuk photo

A number of concerned residents spoke at the Inland Wetlands & Watercourses Agency’s Dec. 9 public hearing regarding the application for construction of a synagogue on Orchard Street, but once again, agency members concluded that more specific information is needed before the application can move forward.

In October 2012, the Greenwich Reform Synagogue purchased property at 92 Orchard Street with plans of constructing a synagogue with parking space, drainage modifications and utility connections. Since that time, neighbors in the area surrounding the proposed Cos Cob site have voiced concerns over potential changes in the residential character of the neighborhood as well as the potential disturbances the large structure might cause in the area.

At the Inland Wetlands & Watercourses Agency’s Oct. 21 public hearing, testimony from many residents regarding these issues was heard, but the agency required a more detailed plan from the applicant before moving to close the hearing. The agency further requested that several changes be made to the applicant’s plan.

The new plan unveiled at the Dec. 9 hearing was expected to resolve many of these issues, but further public testimony prompted agency members to ask the applicant to provide more specifics at a future meeting before taking new steps.

At the Dec. 9 hearing, agency director Michael Chambers acknowledged that Greenwich Reform Synagogue attorney Thomas Heagney had made changes to the synagogue application that were requested at the previous hearing by the agency. In doing so, Mr. Chambers said, the proposed structure was minimally reduced and repositioned, requiring less removal of ledge on the property; all drainage structures and associated alterations of the upper wetland area of the property were removed; and the installation of permeable pavement coverage was added, which serves as a standard industry cover for sites nestled in communities that already have drainage issues and plans to carry out large-scale development.

According to Mr. Heagney, since the Oct. 21 public hearing, the applicant has attempted to address three main areas of concern — disturbance in the wetlands and the need to pipe the watercourse on the north end of the property, the impact of storm water and overall drainage on the property, and how the removal of rock could affect the wetlands.

As a result, the synagogue application has been revised to eliminate the need to pipe the watercourse, work is ongoing with an engineer to address the possibility of having a 100-year storm peak flow for drainage, and hydrogeologist Russ Slayback has provided a report regarding the effects of rock removal in the area, Mr. Heagney said.

Additionally, Mr. Heagney said, although the addition of an underground garage to the property was proposed to the applicant, it was not considered an option because of the high ground water table on the site and the necessity to conduct further rock removal.

In return, Mario Cuppola, attorney for the Cos Cob neighbors opposed to the synagogue construction, said his clients felt the applicant had not done enough to alleviate their concerns over various issues, including site drainage, vernal pools and rock blasting.

A number of Cos Cob residents at the hearing told the agency they were opposed to the synagogue because of flooding issues in the area that might be exacerbated by the structure.

Christiane Abbott, a resident of Orchard Street, said there is a significant amount of water running through her neighborhood in the best of weather, which increases substantially after a storm. The open field across from her house is an indicator of the problem, she said.

“In the blink of an eye, that entire field fills with water and there’s a very small drain that is located near the street side and that can basically get clogged,” Ms. Abbott said.

After a storm, Ms. Abbott said, she has seen the field in question filled almost to the edges of the road. Accordingly, she added, drainage for the synagogue site and the surrounding neighborhood in its entirety, rather than the construction site alone, needs to be considered before the project can proceed.

Tom Dianis, a Valleywood Road resident whose land abuts the applicant’s property, also voiced concerns regarding drainage in the area. The applicant’s proposed use of permeable pavement, he said, may contribute to the potential overflow of the site’s drainage pipe, causing those who already experience flooding in the area further aggravation.

Other Cos Cob residents shared stories of property damage as a result of local flooding.

Drika Costantino, an Orchard Street resident, said a spell of heavy rain in 2006 caused water to rise up through her basement, even with the help of a sump pump. The water table was so high, she added, that the water rose through the grout in her basement’s tile floor. If drainage in Ms. Costantino’s neighborhood is affected by the synagogue construction, flooding problems like the one she suffered will become all too common, she said.

Stephen Savarese, a professional engineer working for Mr. Cuppola’s clients, said he had concerns over downstream flooding, especially because the applicant’s original site plan included a more expansive drainage area study than the latest plan proposes.

“There’s more going on here than we can study as engineers and scientists, and I think it’s valuable to the commission to study all aspects of what this development proposes,” Mr. Savarese told the agency.

The possibility that vernal pools exist at the synagogue site was another hot topic at the hearing. Vernal pools are temporary pools of water that provide a mating area for distinctive animals, especially amphibians.

Christy Coon, a wetland expert for Mr. Cuppola’s clients, said it is vital that an assessment be conducted by professionals to determine whether vernal pools exist at the synagogue site. The assessment must be conducted in March or April, however, because that is when animals like wood frogs, spotted salamanders and other amphibians mate, she said.

If areas of standing water found on the site are determined to be vernal pools, the synagogue project will cause a serious disturbance to wildlife in the area, Ms. Coon said. Cutting into the wetlands is “traumatic” to the surrounding ecosystem, especially because of the invasion of noise and light that would be caused by nearby humans using the proposed synagogue, she added.

In response to Ms. Coon’s comments, Mr. Chambers chimed in on behalf of the agency to explain that there are at least three confirmed vernal pools within a quarter of a mile of the synagogue site. If vernal pools are confirmed on that property, the affected animals could migrate to one of the other nearby pools, he said. That does not mean, however, that those hoping to protect vernal pool animals will be dismissed, Mr. Chambers said, adding that the situation was worth investigating.

Bill Kenny, environmental consultant for the applicant, argued that vernal pools provide a habitat for breeding amphibians but that the pools are only half of the equation. In order for vernal pool animals to survive, they need a forest habitat in addition to the pool, he said.

It is recommended that 75% of land within 750 feet of a vernal pool be a forest in order to support amphibians when they are living the vast majority of their lives outside the vernal pool. Taking that figure into consideration, Mr. Kenny conducted research on the proposed synagogue site and discovered that only about 4% of the surrounding area is forest land, as opposed to the recommended 75%. The results, he said, indicate that standing water in the area might have the shape and impression of a vernal pool, but will not have the amphibian population that brings it to the critical vernal pool level.

The possibility of rock blasting at the synagogue site was another issue that had many Cos Cob residents voicing their concerns.

Ernst Schirmer, a Valleywood Road resident and self-proclaimed explosives expert, said rock formation on the synagogue site is extremely hard, which would make blasting in the area unpredictable. If the blasting occurred, Mr. Schirmer said, he wonders how the wetlands and the animals who call it home would be affected and how the town would address the issue if the damage was discovered later rather than immediately.

Mr. Dianis voiced concerns about the east-to-west ledge formation on the southern boundary of the applicant’s property.

“I am adamantly against any blasting in this area, as that ledge runs along the entire western portion of my property and continues underneath my house and several of my neighbors’ houses,” Mr. Dianis said. “I wholeheartedly support centering the applicant’s proposed building on the frontage width,” which would put the structure at a greater distance from several nearby homes, he said.

Lorraine Hufnagel of Valleywood Road said she has personally dealt with the removal of ledge adjacent to both sides of her home. After ledge removal, no one can predict where water runoff will go, which could cause major problems, she said. Although Ms. Hufnagel is not an expert, she added, she has seen firsthand how water that used to flow under her driveway now flows under her home as a result of ledge removal.

Mr. Slayback, hydrogeologist for the applicant, told Inland Wetlands & Watercourses Agency members that many of the arguments made against rock blasting at the hearing were erroneous. The rock on the synagogue site is dense metamorphic rock, he said, and revisions to the applicant’s blasting plan would make for a simple removal procedure.

Mr. Slayback’s exposure to blasting began in mining projects in the western part of the United States and Canada in “hard rock country,” where blasting went 600 to 800 feet underground. In contrast, “on this site the blasting is extraordinarily minimal,” he said. The blasting would involve making drill holes closely spaced together, which would be set off with millisecond delays, resulting in multiple “booms,” rather than a single blast, which greatly lessens the shock. In addition, he said, no rock breakage would occur more than 10 feet from any blast hole, meaning neighboring properties would not be affected.

At the conclusion of the public hearing, agency members were unable to set a date for the next hearing because of scheduling conflicts with another town agency. When the hearing does take place, however, agency members said they expected the applicant to address the concerns raised throughout the evening in specific detail.


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