Greenwich Reform Synagogue decision pushed to Tuesday night

At the upcoming Planning and Zoning Commission meeting on Jan. 29, many interested Cos Cob residents will hear what is supposed to be a final decision in a battle over lot lines that may be the first step toward allowing the construction of a synagogue on Orchard Street.

In October, the Greenwich Reform Synagogue purchased property at 92 Orchard Street, then sought to divide the adjacent property at 96 Orchard Street in order to attain enough property to construct the new building. Contention over the issue began in November, when roughly 100 Cos Cob neighbors attended a Planning and Zoning meeting to protest the synagogue’s construction, citing concerns about increased traffic and a fear that the large structure would change the character of the residential neighborhood.

The Jan. 8 zoning meeting showed a similar strength in numbers, with plenty of Cos Cob residents prepared to speak against the lot line revision at 96 Orchard Street that would allow plans for the synagogue to move forward. Only limited comment ended up being heard, however, since many said they would reserve their remarks for the Jan. 29 meeting.

Thomas Heagney, attorney for the synagogue, noted in his comments to the commission at the Jan. 8 meeting that the zoning plan he originally submitted in the fall had been slightly amended to avoid violating lot shape requirements. The change was insignificant, however, because at the end of the day, “you’re starting with two lots and ending with two lots” and simply revising lines so that one becomes bigger and one smaller, he said.

With the crux of the matter lying in whether the division of land can be identified as a subdivision or a lot line revision, Mr. Heagney said he looked to similar cases within the state to find a definition of what a lot line revision is. West Hartford, he said, calls it “an adjustment or reallocation of property between two or more lots or parcels of land which does not create a new lot or a parcel of land and which is not subject of their subdivision regulations.”

The synagogue’s proposed plan, therefore, should not be considered a subdivision because a new lot is not being created, he said.

Mario Coppola, attorney for the Cos Cob residents opposing the development, refuted Mr. Heagney’s comments, claiming that the amended proposal is “bad planning practice.” The amended plan, he said, made material changes to the proposal by doubling the size of the parcel at 92 Orchard Street while simultaneously decreasing the property’s frontage. This plan, he said, would decrease space where it is needed most, as the frontage would be the area where cars and people entered and exited the property.

Creating two odd-shaped lots when subdividing land “just doesn’t make sense,” Mr. Coppola said. “That’s why the applicant didn’t propose it in the first place.”

Mr. Coppola also reiterated arguments he made at the November Planning and Zoning meeting, arguing that the proposed synagogue application constitutes a subdivision, not a mere lot line revision. During the meeting, Mr. Coppola cited a case similar to the one in question, Balf Company v. the Manchester Zoning Board of Appeals, which ultimately determined that the splitting of the involved properties constituted a subdivision.

Furthermore, he said, Greenwich gets its zoning authority from a special act of legislature, which provides that a subdivision is the creation of two or more lots, as opposed to the Connecticut General Statutes used by the majority of the state, which says a subdivision is the creation of three or more lots.

After hearing from the attorneys, however, the commission asked for briefs from each of them, summarizing cases that would support each side’s conclusion regarding subdivisions and lot lines. In order to sufficiently review the briefs, the commission said it would need time, and it ultimately decided that a final decision for the application would not be made that night, instead pushing it to the Jan. 29 meeting.

Though many members of the public who had signed up to speak deferred until the following meeting, others could not wait. Tom Dianis, whose property is the only one that abuts both 92 and 96 Orchard Street, submitted to the commission a petition with a number of signatures from Cos Cob residents who opposed the construction of the synagogue, adding that he found it “distressing” that no one from the synagogue had informed him of the amended lot line proposal.

Rick Novakowski also addressed the commission, saying that the applicant’s attempt to be forthcoming was only “piecemeal.” He said families both old and young within the neighborhood surrounding Orchard Street would have their entire vision of what their home life would be like compromised if a large structure that would attract a lot of activity were to be constructed there.

“We want to make ourselves known that we are opposed to what’s going on and also conscious of what’s going on,” Mr. Novakowski said.

Representative Town Meeting member and Cos Cob resident Chris von Keyserling echoed Mr. Novakowski’s comments, saying the addition of a synagogue would change the Orchard Street neighborhood’s use from residential to institutional and calling the potential impact on neighborhood families “disturbing.”

The next Planning and Zoning Commission meeting will take place on Jan. 29 at 7 p.m. in the Town Hall Meeting Room.

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