Continuance granted as neighbors oppose development

Plans to build the new location for Greenwich Reform Synagogue in a residential part of Orchard Street have raised neighbor protests as the town begins its review of the proposal.

At Tuesday’s Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, the commission hit the pause button by granting a continuance in order to receive more legal advice from the town attorney’s office about the application. The commission is considering the final subdivision for the property at 96 Orchard Street, which revises the lot lines. This is only the first step in a process expected go on for close to a year, if not more, that will take the development back to the Planning and Zoning Commission, the Zoning Board of Appeals, the Architectural Review Committee, and the Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Agency as more property is added to the development site.

At a meeting at the Cos Cob firehouse on Nov. 20, neighbors voiced strong opposition to the project, saying that a structure like this in the middle of a residential area could hurt the neighborhood character and add a potentially dangerous amount of traffic. About 100 neighbors turned out for the meeting at the Cos Cob firehouse to try to organize themselves, and steps have now been taken. The neighbors have hired land use attorney Ira Bloom to lead their effort and showed up in force for Tuesday’s commission hearing to ask for the continuance.

No design yet

Concerns about development in the area and the potential impact on town wetlands sidetracked an earlier proposed use for 96 Orchard Street. The land is owned by Lou and Randy Caravella, longtime residents and business owners in Cos Cob, and originally the intent was to put three homes there. But when that did not receive town approval, this deal was struck instead, and neighbors were left wondering what alternatives they had as scenarios of a large development and new parking area were feared.

Greenwich Reform Synagogue congregation president Robert Birnbaum told the Post this week that they are more than willing to work with neighbors but that early concerns about the size of the structure are unfounded because no decisions have been made about how the synagogue would look. Neighbors said at the meeting that it would be a 20,000-square-foot structure with 100 parking spaces, but Mr. Birnbaum said nothing has been designed yet.

“The reality is that there is no plan,” Mr. Birnbaum said. “There is a site but there is no plan yet. We have yet to engage an architect. It is true there are a lot of concerns about what the plan might be, but those concerns are, to some extent, existing in one’s mind’s eye rather than being based on an actual plan.”

Mr. Birnbaum said an architect is likely to be hired within the next four to eight weeks and after that it will take approximately six months for the actual design plan to be developed. He said rumors that the synagogue is building a four-story underground garage or a 40-foot steeple are not factual. He said there is currently an “information vacuum” because no official plan has been designed yet.

“We think a lot of the concerns are perfectly legitimate,” Mr. Birnbaum said. “We anticipated some of the concerns but we don’t have perfect foresight. A lot of the concerns will be included and responded to in the design process. Anytime you build a project in Greenwich you have to assume there will be concerns and opposition. We are very respectful of their concerns.”

Neighbor opposition

Cos Cob resident Sarah Littman, who has been a leading voice in the fight and a key driver in hiring Mr. Bloom, said neighbors showed up in such large numbers at Tuesday’s meeting to counter the idea that opposition was limited to just a few voices.

“As you saw from the meeting at the Cos Cob firehouse, this is a neighborhood up in arms to protect its residential character and way of life, not just a few angry voices,” Ms. Littman told the Post. “More people are finding out and getting upset about this every day. We realize this is going to be a drawn-out fight and we are organizing and fund-raising for the long haul. We’ve got Cos Cob old timers who have lived here for over 40 years united with newcomers like me who have only been here for five and folks who just bought their houses a month ago and are beside themselves because they are now a few doors down from what might become a huge, out-of-character building.”

The neighbors did have some high-profile figures at the Nov. 20 meeting, all of whom urged them to get organized and be ready for a potentially long fight. State Sen. L. Scott Frantz (R-36th District), state Rep. Fred Camillo (R-151st District) and Selectman Drew Marzullo, a resident of Orchard Street, all spoke at the meeting and indicated their support for the neighbors.

“This could go on for a year or 18 months or even two years, so make sure that the passion doesn’t diminish over the course of time,” Mr. Frantz said. “Make sure you’re on it and that you hire the best lawyer you can. When these things drag on, if you don’t have good legal advice, sometimes in the middle of the night they can tend to get passed. Stay on top of it.”

Mr. Camillo, who grew up on Orchard Street, compared this to the ongoing fight against cell towers in Cos Cob, in which he and Mr. Frantz have taken active roles.

“Having experience in North Mianus and Cos Cob with the cell towers, I can tell you that you’re doing the right thing,” Mr. Camillo said. “You need to mobilize and speak with one voice. The facts are on your side, and being unified will be a big help to you. … We will be there every step of the way. It’s a little tough. We know some of the people involved in it. We grew up with them, but what’s right is right.”

At Tuesday’s hearing both First Selectman Peter Tesei and Selectman Dave Theis expressed their own reservations about the proposal. Mr. Tesei implored the commission to review all of the information before it before making a decision that could impact so many residents.

The decision “requires a great deal of time and attention on the part of this commission to see to it that all the various elements and concerns that were raised by the residents’ attorney be clearly investigated and evaluated,” he said, adding that the area in question has always been prone to flooding and that the town should not “exacerbate an existing problem.”

Not about synagogue

At the Cos Cob meeting, Mr. Frantz, Mr. Camillo and Mr. Marzullo all stressed that their opposition to the project had nothing to do with Greenwich Reform Synagogue as an entity. They said they just felt any development like this was bad for the neighborhood. Several neighbors pushed for immediate discussions with the congregation leadership about how to work through the matter, and it was suggested they could help the synagogue look for an alternate site.

“We want Greenwich Reform Synagogue to succeed in finding a place, and we will do whatever we can to help them find a good location that will work for them,” Mr. Frantz said. “We just agree that this residential neighborhood is not the place.”

Mr. Marzullo added, “The idea that this could be perceived as anything else would make me sick. This is all about a large building going into a space where it would not fit.”

Mr. Marzullo stressed how vital it would be to have an ongoing dialogue with the synagogue, which he said had been very receptive to him, to make sure all concerns were heard and to keep the issue from becoming a more contentious fight.

Mr. Birnbaum pledged that the congregation wanted to work with the neighbors to show them the project would not have the heavy impact they fear it will. He said conversations have already taken place with neighbors, and more will be held if they are wanted. He said the congregation would make concepts available to the public throughout the design phase and neighbors would be able to offer criticism and input.

“We think this is an appropriate site for a number of reasons,” Mr. Birnbaum said. “It’s near other institutions. There’s a church about a thousand feet away and a middle school about 1,000 feet away, too, which also is used as a church on Sundays. This is primarily a residential neighborhood, but it’s one that already has other institutions in it.”

As part of the approval process, the synagogue will need to do a traffic study to gauge the impact on the neighborhood. The number of vehicles that would be added to the residential area has been cited as a major concern by neighbors. But Mr. Birnbaum said he believes it will not have the huge impact they fear, noting that the synagogue’s previous location on Stanwich Road was off Orchard, so there might not be much more traffic than there was before. He said the days of highest attendance for the synagogue, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are typically days when Central Middle School is not in session.

“We’re not that big a congregation,” Mr. Birnbaum said, listing the congregation at close to 150 families. “The times that the congregation would be using the facility wouldn’t coincide with other times of peak use. We’re not using it when parents and school buses are coming into the school. We’re not using it at rush hour. We will do a traffic study, but we’re confident that our impact on traffic in the neighborhood will not be very noticeable.”

On days of peak usage, like the High Holidays, Mr. Birnbaum said, the congregation has hired off-duty Greenwich police officers to direct traffic and make sure things are safe.

 

Kait Shea contributed to this article.

 

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