Cos Cob: Final plan for synagogue expected next month

An artist’s rendering of the southeast view of the proposed building for Greenwich Reform Synagogue in Cos Cob. Neighbors have voiced concerns about the size of the building as well as potential parking and traffic issues.

An artist’s rendering of the southeast view of the proposed building for Greenwich Reform Synagogue in Cos Cob. Neighbors have voiced concerns about the size of the building as well as potential parking and traffic issues.

 

A new location for Greenwich Reform Synagogue in a Cos Cob residential neighborhood is one step closer to reality, but neighbors say the current plan remains unacceptable.

The proposal to place the synagogue on Orchard Street has been a controversial one from the beginning as neighbors have worried about the impact of a house of worship in an area that only contains homes. A final plan has not been submitted yet but the current design calls for a 12,263-square-foot building and on-site parking spaces with an off-site location utilized for overflow parking.

That plan received preliminary approval from the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission on June 3, a major victory, but not the final step. Greenwich Reform Synagogue was scheduled to appear last night before the Zoning Board of Appeals, which took place after deadline for this week’s edition of the Post. After that, the project will go before the town’s Architectural Review Committee and then back to the Planning and Zoning Commission for a final approval.

According to Sandy Soule, a past president of the synagogue and the co-chair of its new building committee, the hope is to be before architectural review this month and then submit the final plan in July for approval with an eye toward breaking ground this year.

“We are approaching the final stretch of this, I hope,” Ms. Soule said. “It would be a hardship on us to wait any longer on this, even if it’s to next spring.”

She added that last week’s decision by the commission was very welcome news.

“We were very pleased with the decision,” Ms. Soule said. “We feel it’s been a good, balanced, thorough and fair hearing that’s been based on the facts and not on emotions.”

Currently the congregation has no permanent location since property it was using on Stanwich Road was sold as part of the Stanwich School expansion. It is utilizing space in St. Catherine’s Church in Riverside as well as in other locations around town, moving around depending on the size of the event.

“It’s not ideal but we are making it work. It’s better than 40 years in the desert,” Ms. Soule joked. She said the congregation currently has 120 people in it and, even if a permanent home can be found, she does not expect it to grow “enormously” and add to the demands needed for space on the property.

But to build the synagogue according to the plan they have submitted means overcoming neighbor objections. There have been loud protests ever since the project was announced about the potential impact on a residential neighborhood given the extra traffic it would create. Flooding is already an issue, after blasting to the rock ledge takes place as part of the construction, potential wetlands damage and people parking on the street, which neighbors say can create safety hazards.

So far those complaints have not cut ice with the town as the land use boards, including the zoning commission and the Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Agency, have sided with Greenwich Reform Synagogue after several public hearings. Despite this latest victory, though, the neighbors are pressing on, and will be appearing at all future hearings to attempt to get changes made to the plan. This has been a self-funded effort by the neighbors and has brought them up against not just synagogue officials but also the town, which has sought to get their lawsuit against the Planning and Zoning Commission dismissed, an attempt recently shot down in court.

Mario Copolla, the attorney representing the neighbors, told the Post on Tuesday that the issue isn’t the building of the synagogue, it’s the size of the building proposed. He said his clients would be willing to accept a proposal for 10,000 square feet maximum along with more on-site parking spaces. Mr. Copolla said that would allow the synagogue to still have space for a sanctuary, classrooms and a social hall while keeping more within the scale of the existing structures in the neighborhood.

“It’s unfair that [Greenwich Reform Synagogue] feels as though they don’t need to address the issues we’ve identified,” Mr. Copolla said. “Under the proposal they’re putting forth, this structure is going to be approximately five and a half times the size of an average home in the area… My clients are not opposed to a synagogue or any other house of worship in the neighborhood but the neighbors have concerns about what the impact of a structure this size and the parking it’s going to need is going to have.”

Ms. Soule said the Greenwich Reform Synagogue is looking to put conflict behind and work with the neighbors, as she feels they have throughout the process.

“Some of the neighbors have been quite vocal but many of them have also had some very good suggestions, which we have worked into the plan as a result,” Ms. Soule said. “We really want to be good neighbors.”

According to Ms. Soule, some of the suggestions that have been adopted are to take steps to test to make sure dangerous levels of radon are not released from blasting; shades brought into the design to keep lights from the sanctuary from bothering neighbors; planting bushes and not trees as part of the landscaping design; and scaling down a planned three-lane driveway in front of the building to two lanes. Therefore, Ms. Soule said she feels they have made some progress with the neighbors.

Acknowledging that the synagogue has made changes based on neighborhood wishes, Mr. Copolla said that they should have been done in the first place and don’t go far enough. Calling the potential size of the structure a “white elephant” inside the neighborhood, he said the neighbors will continue to push for a scaled-down proposal, allowing for the option down the line of an expansion if it’s necessary and neighbors are willing.

Mr.  Copolla said neighbors are particularly concerned about the parking. The current plan, he contends, does not provide enough onsite parking, and the neighbors would like to see it increased to allow 70 spots because of worries that major events at the synagogue would force congregants to park on the street or on driveways. He added that while there are plans for off-site parking, they are not solid enough with no commitment in place for the long term, meaning that within a year the option to put those extra cars off site won’t be available, potentially moving all them back into the neighborhood.

“We feel the commission should take care of this now and avoid having a nightmare scenario that you can’t turn the clock back and fix,” Mr. Copolla said.

Neighborhood resident Sarah Darer Littman, whose property is in close proximity to the proposed development, said that the town has not been protecting Cos Cob homeowners from a structure too large for a residential neighborhood. She told the Post that she understood the town was concerned about being sued under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law, by denying the synagogue, but the town had to be just as concerned about protecting homeowners.

“[We] recognize that Greenwich Reform Synagogue has a right to build a house of worship in Greenwich but it can’t be one of any size and scope at the expense of adjacent homeowners who have been living in their homes for over 40 years just because the town is scared of being sued,” Ms. Littman said. “One wonders if Greenwich Reform Synagogue were attempting to build next door to wealthy residents in backcountry or Old Greenwich if our town government would be making the same decisions.”

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