Greenwich Reform Synagogue showdown continues as town weighs options

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.

Tensions and legal proceedings continue to build around the proposed new home of the Greenwich Reform Synagogue in Cos Cob. 

Following the denial of its application for a special exception to build a house of worship, the synagogue’s congregation filed a federal lawsuit against the town earlier this month for violating its right to worship. The denial was handed down by the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals, which met with with the Board of Selectmen in executive session on July 24 to discuss the litigation, which alleges that the town is being discriminatory against the project because the proposed plan for the new synagogue met Planning and Zoning requirements. The suit says that it was “arbitrary and capricious” to deny the special exception because there are already 30 other houses of worship in residential neighborhoods, as this one would be.

Because this is ongoing litigation requiring the involvement of town counsel, the meeting last Thursday was held in executive session with members of the ZBA as well as First Selectman Peter Tesei and Selectman Drew Marzullo. Selectman David Theis has recused himself as he had already publicly stated he was opposed to having the construction take place on Orchard Street, which is a residential neighborhood in Cos Cob. No immediate action resulted from the meeting but the allegations of discrimination has led to a pushback from the neighbors of the 92 Orchard Street property.

Cos Cob Families Fighting for Residential Rights (CCFFRR), a group dedicated to perserving “the single-family residential character of Cos Cob,” mobilized a letter-writing campaign to inform Mr. Tesei and Mr. Marzullo of their grievances. The group dismisses the synagogue’s claims that anti-Semitism played a factor in the decision, and has an ongoing lawsuit against the Greenwich Reform Synagogue and the town’s Planning and Zoning Comission.

“Why did our town government go to the expense of creating a Plan of Conservation and Development if they are now going to ignore it?” the group asked in the letter launching the campaign. “And why is it in the best interest of the town to resolve this if it is not in the best interest of ALL of its residents? If the town caves on this, then they are telling us that money trumps conservation and the preservation of property rights.”

All parties involved in the CCFFRR suit were to take part in a court-ordered pretrial this past Monday, but a late motion for continuance resulted in the proceedings being pushed to September. Town resident Sarah Darer Littman, whose property is close to the proposed site for the synagogue, is named as the plantiff in that case and was one of several Cos Cob residents who contacted Mr. Tesei regarding the synagogue’s own lawsuit against the town.

“GRS has tried from the beginning to frame this as an issue of anti-Semitism, but you know, and I know, that this is not the case. If you think it feels comfortable for me to be in opposition to a synagogue, nothing could be further from the truth,” Littman wrote. “I have hated every minute of this. But I will stand up for what is right, and this development is not right for the site as it currently stands.”

Town leaders have acknowledged the seriousness of the congregation’s claims, and their approach to this case will carry social, political and financial ramifications regardless of their stance. Because, just like after an accusation of racism or sexism, a charge of anti-Semitism would likely call for not just a review of potential individual biases, but a review of the system as a whole.

The synagogue’s filing against the town suggests that, beyond overt discrimination, it was not granted the same considerations and allowances afforded to Christian bodies of worship in the town. Additionally, its combative encounters with the CCFFRR are listed under the portion of the filing detailing the alleged discrimination against the center. The CCFFRR may not represent the full body of surrounding neighbors, but they maintain that the issue is strictly a matter of zoning. The neighbors have previously filed suit in this case over approvals from the zoning commission and the Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Agency in favor of the proposed synagogue.

As the struggle continues, the town must also remain defensive of its own committees, lest they lose the ability to carry out their necessary functions and enforce their decisions. The Planning and Zoning Commission works to enforce the Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) adopted in 2009, but is not legally bound to do so. Both dissenting votes in the dismissal of the synagogue’s application came from alternate members of the Board of Zoning Appeals.

A public hearing regarding the proposed synagogue had been tentatively scheduled as a part of the July 29 Planning and Zoning Comission meeting but has since been postponed. For now, the ball remains in the town’s court as the ZBA could reconsider its decision or push forward with it, which would have a direct bearing on whether the synagogue’s suit goes forward.

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