ZBA approves settlement, synagogue plans will proceed

The struggle over the construction of the new Greenwich Reform Synagogue is now one step closer to resolution after the proposed house of worship was granted a special exception from the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) as a part of a settlement with the town.

As a part of the terms, the synagogue will withdraw the federal lawsuit it filed against the town in July that claimed discrimination on the town’s part in denying a key approval that had temporarily put the brakes on the project, which will see the synagogue built in an otherwise residential neighborhood in Cos Cob. The suit had been filed when the ZBA initially refused to grant the special exception for the project. The synagogue claimed that this was improper under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and that the congregation was being discriminated against since churches had been approved for residential neighborhoods.

The settlement does include some alterations to the plan for the synagogue. The number of parking spaces at the proposed synagogue would be increased to 52 from 46, including two spaces for the handicapped, the driveway would be shifted from the southern portion of the property to the northern portion, and the overall size of the proposed building would be reduced by approximately 2,100 cubic feet.

A pair of town meetings last Thursday finalized the settlement, with the Board of Selectmen approving a small portion of the document during its morning meeting and the ZBA going over the bulk of the terms in the evening. In the end, the document garnered a 2-0 vote of approval from the selectmen, with Selectman David Theis abstaining, and a 5-0 vote from the ZBA. With the settlement complete, the synagogue may seek final approval for its site plans from the Planning & Zoning Commission.

The agreement is certainly not without critics, many of whom reside within the Cos Cob community where the synagogue is being planned. Because of the highly contentious status of the GRS application, both boards discussed the settlement in public session, going against the typically closed procedure followed in cases of litigation against the town. Between the two meetings, dozens of residents voiced their concerns with the possible impact of the synagogue.

The synagogue’s application for a special exception was originally denied by the ZBA with a 2-2-1 vote in June. Both dissenting voters cited issues with the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) as the basis for their denial, believing that the synagogue would change the character of the residential neighborhood with its mass and bring more traffic issues to an already troubled area.

Believing that it had satisfied the demands of the POCD and the town’s land use commissions to the best of its ability, GRS filed a civil rights case claiming it had been denied its right to worship. Since filing its special exception application in August 2013, GRS’s planned synagogue has seen a number of revisions in an attempt to satisfy the town’s commissions as well as the neighbors. Additionally, a traffic study submitted to the Planning & Zoning Commission reported that there would be no significant impact on drivers traveling through the area.

In an effort to resolve the civil rights lawsuit outside of court, changes to the plan continued as a part of settlement negotiations between the town and GRS, with input from Mario Coppola, the attorney representing some of the Cos Cob neighbors. This round of revisions included additional parking spaces, a shift in driveway placement and a size reduction of 2,100 cubic feet. Additionally, the town has offered resident parking enforcement for those living in the neighborhood to assist with the feared influx of traffic.

“I understand and I appreciate the concerns of the property owners adjacent to the site, but GRS has gone out of its way to accommodate those concerns, making several adjustments to the plan, and has tried hard and sincerely to be a good neighbor,” GRS congregation member Jonathan Perloe said during the ZBA meeting.

Other than Mr. Perloe, the GRS supporters remained largely silent during both meetings. Concerns ranged from a lack of overflow parking and the frequency of events held at the synagogue to the safety of children walking home during the construction process. A number of concessions and revisions to the settlement were made during the meeting as a result, but none that altered the basic tenets of the agreement.

Those completely opposed to the synagogue’s construction questioned the status of the POCD, as confusion arose between the two meetings as to whether the document is considered law. John Wetmore, the town’s special counsel for land use issues, clarified that the document is a part of the town’s regulations and was enforced as such, but is not a true law.

Several attendees asked the ZBA to justify its votes on the basis of the POCD, believing that the GRS plan had yet to satisfy its requirements. Additionally, others accused the town of agreeing to the settlement out of fear of litigation. RTM District 8 leader Christopher von Keyserling suggested that settling the case would undermine the strength of the POCD and the town’s land use officials.

“What I’m concerned about is the integrity of zoning, because if people don’t believe that zoning doesn’t apply to everybody, we get like Prohibition, where nobody has faith in it, and all you’re doing is promoting scofflaws, and I don’t think you would undermine the strength of our zoning,” Mr. von Keyserling told the ZBA.

Residents also raised concerns regarding the short notice for both meetings, claiming that the full number of dissenting individuals would not be able to made their voices heard. Sarah Darer Littman, who has been vocal in her opposition to the synagogue, pointed out that the Cos Cob School open house was being held on the same evening, and that many parents were prioritizing their children over the Thursday meetings.

First Selectman Peter Tesei conceded that the scheduling was not ideal, but continued to stress throughout the selectmen’s meeting that the public session was an unusual occurrence to begin with and his board had no standing to change the meeting. In the evening, ZBA Chairman Patricia Kirkpatrick dismissed requests to delay the settlement vote, saying she believed that the public had ample time to make points during the numerous public meetings held in the past.

“We have heard hours and hours of public testimony from months ago, we’ve heard several meetings about when it went to a lawsuit. … Personally, I don’t believe that due diligence has been left out,” Ms. Kirkpatrick said. “We have heard, and we wanted to give everybody the chance to tell us, one more time, everybody’s opinion on both sides of this; it is a very complicated thing. But I do think personally that we have heard a lot of testimony, and by offering up one more time for everybody to come, I think we’re getting 100 opinions tonight, and I’ll grant you that there are 40 or 50 people who couldn’t come tonight, but that would be true of any other night, and they did probably did come to some of the other meetings. “

In the end, the ZBA found the settlement satisfactory, choosing to approve it and the subsequent special exception. When going over the criteria provided by the POCD, the board said the revised application met the necessary requirements. While the vote put an end to the GRS lawsuit, the town is still facing litigation from the neighbors regarding the property. Though the GRS application was listed on the P&Z agenda for Oct. 7, the hearing was granted an extension at the request of the applicant, with the maximum extension date set to Oct. 25.

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