Greenwich Reform Synagogue files civil rights lawsuit over plan rejection

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.

Following the rejection of its plan to build a new house of worship in a residential neighborhood in Cos Cob, the Greenwich Reform Synagogue has accused the town of violating the congregation’s civil rights, filing a lawsuit in federal court last week.

The legal action comes just weeks after the Planning & Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) denied the synagogue’s request for a special exception on the grounds that the prospective structure would conflict with the characteristic of the neighborhood due to its size and traffic. The site, at 92 Orchard Street, is located in a residential area. Voting was split 2-2 with one abstaining member during the ZBA’s June 11 meeting. A total of four votes is needed to earn approval.

Because of the suit the Greenwich Board of Selectmen is scheduled to meet this week about the matter. The timing of the meeting had not been set as of deadline for this week’s edition of the Post. Check Greenwich-post.com for the latest updates.

The plan for the synagogue has caused much concern among neighbors who have said they are worried about the impact of the construction due to the increased traffic and potential flooding after rock blasting. Mario Copolla, the attorney representing the neighbors, told the Post in June the issue isn’t the building of a synagogue, but rather the size of the building they’re proposing.  He said his clients would be willing to accept a proposal for 10,000 square feet maximum along with more on-site parking spaces that would allow the synagogue space for a sanctuary, classrooms and a social hall while keeping more within the scale of the existing structures in the neighborhood.

Prior to the ZBA’s decision, the synagogue had gotten all the required land use approvals, including preliminary approval from the Planning and Zoning Commission on June 3, and had seemed to be moving ahead briskly with the hope of presenting a final plan this month and breaking ground in the fall. But the ZBA’s decision threw the brakes on the process.

In the suit, the Greenwich Reform Synagogue describes the decision as “arbitrary and capricious,” asserting that the current plan met all Planning and Zoning Commission requirements and that 30 of 35 houses of worship already built in the town are located in residential areas as well. Additionally, the synagogue cites two existing houses of worship in the neighborhood, Greenwich Baptist Church and the United Methodist Church, that are already operating larger houses of worship, and a third congregation, Trinity Church, that meets at Central Middle School, which is just blocks away from the proposed location on Orchard Street.

Since submitting their initial plan and application in August last year, the synagogue said it has participated in a series of negotiations not only with town land use agencies, but the prospective neighbors of the synagogue as well. The process included a number of concessions to meet town zoning criteria, including shrinking the planned facility from the original 20,000 square feet down to 12,262. Arrangements were made with neighbors, too, with the synagogue agreeing to pay for landscaping costs at the adjacent properties and making design changes to the structure to fit the community’s desires.

Still, these changes were not enough to satisfy the ZBA, with board members Wayne Sullivan and Ken Rogozinski supporting the motion to deny the synagogue’s application. The objections of both board members are cited in the suit.

“I used to live in that neighborhood as well so I know it’s a clearly defined residential neighborhood,” Mr. Sullivan reportedly said during a June 23 hearing, according to the suit. “The properties are small. You’re right on top of one another. I mean, you can’t deny it’s changing the characteristic of the neighborhood.”

According to the account of the meeting, which the Post was not present for, in the suit Mr. Rogozinski supported that sentiment, specifically citing the structure’s “mass and its presence.” Acting ZBA Secretary Lawrence Larson was the abstaining member, having made a motion to continue the appeal that failed to carry.

After a year-long application process, the synagogue contends in the suit that the town has violated its right to worship by refusing to allow the construction of its new home despite its efforts to meet the town’s criteria. The suit names a number of Christian houses of worship that the congregation feels were afforded much greater consideration not only in the process of application approval, but also in meeting PZC standards.

The congregation of Greenwich Reform Synagogue has migrated between rented spaces since 2012, when its prior location at 257 Stanwich Road was sold to the Stanwich School. As a result, congregation leaders say they have suffered from an inability to practice certain customs and have been unable to re-establish programs that encouraged the growth and devotion of its members.

Additionally, standard services and ceremonies such as Bat and Bar Mitzvahs and weddings have gone unobserved due to a lack of reliable space. According to the suit, the congregation has seen 37 families depart during this homeless period. Given the time and finances invested in the current plan at 92 Orchard Street, the synagogue claims that it has been left unable to procure another location within Greenwich.

Following the lawsuit’s filing, the Board of Selectmen was briefed on the case during an executive session at its July 10 meeting. Town Attorney Wayne Fox said that the board is looking to schedule a special meeting with the BZA at some point before the next Board of Selectmen meeting, which is scheduled for July 24. It is expected that the special meeting will take place this week.

Currently, the synagogue is moving forward with revisions to the synagogue plan, having met with the town’s Architectural Review Committee (ARC) last week even after filing suit. The official statement from the synagogue offers hope for a mutually beneficial solution saying, “We continue to work with town officials and hope to reach an amicable resolution.”

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