Follow the law

FI-EditorialAll along the fear about the proposed synagogue construction in Cos Cob was that it would pit residents against one another. Now that could well be reality.

But what’s at issue isn’t the dispute between the congregation and potential neighbors. That still remains to be settled but it isn’t the main concern. Rather, this new conflict stems from the sudden (and some might say surprising) decision last month from the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals to deny the proposed synagogue a special exception needed for the project to go forward. The ZBA determined that the structure as proposed would conflict with the characteristic of the Orchard Street neighborhood it would call home.

This was far from a clear-cut decision. The five-person ZBA split, with two favoring the construction and two opposed. The key fifth vote then abstained, leaving a knotted up mess. But even if that fifth vote had swung toward the synagogue, it wouldn’t have made a difference as four votes are needed for something to go forward at the ZBA.

So, what now? The synagogue wasn’t going to simply let it end there after all that has been invested, both in terms of money and emotion, in making their new home a reality. So now the members of the congregation are suing, claiming the town’s land use regulations are “burdensome, discriminatory and unreasonable.” The suit from the Greenwich Reform Synagogue Inc. against the town and the ZBA says that “intentional conduct” has prohibited the project from moving forward and that the board’s denial constitutes unequal treatment under the law, considering the other houses of worship in residential neighborhoods that were approved in the past.

Should the Board of Selectmen step in to potentially overrule the ZBA? Not only is it unclear whether the selectmen have standing here but it would be a bad precedent for them to step in and overrule a board. No one wants this to head to court, but the selectmen involving themselves could make it worse by showing politics and pressure can be deciding factors in zoning matters.

While the decision from the ZBA might have been unexpected, this kind of legal battle is not. It seemed inevitable that it would somehow end up in court given the high emotions on both sides. The Greenwich Reform Synagogue is making do with patchwork use of local churches, hardly conditions for building a thriving congregation.

At the same time, the neighbor and town concerns are extremely valid. There’s no way that placing any house of worship in the middle of a residential neighborhood isn’t going to have an impact. Overdevelopment has been and should be a real concern whenever a project like this is considered. This is not one of those situations where it’s easy to pontificate because the answer is clear. That’s what makes this such a mess.

And one also has to be cognizant of the very real history of anti-Semitism in Fairfield County. No one is saying Greenwich has the history of a town like Darien but at the same time it’s an allegation cannot be ignored. Is a synagogue facing more scrutiny than past churches built in residential neighborhoods? There has been no evidence of discrimination by the town or the neighbors. So it’s all about the application of the law. Is it being followed fairly? Or is it being used to create roadblocks? That’s the key question going forward.

The existing law has to be followed no matter what the result. Someone is going to end up unhappy, but as long as the law is followed without discrimination then the town can get out of this mess. It’s the only way.

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