Synagogue proposal gets first approval

p1-synagogue-1-31The preliminary battle may be won for the Greenwich Reform Synagogue’s proposed plan to construct a synagogue on Orchard Street, but the Planning and Zoning Commission made it clear that the war is far from over at Tuesday night’s zoning meeting.

In a unanimous vote, the commission deemed the realignment of properties at 92 and 96 Orchard Street to be neither a subdivision nor a resubdivision, thereby granting the Greenwich Reform Synagogue the right to move forward with its building application. According to commission member Richard Maitland, the synagogue’s proposed lot line division consists of two properties — one that would conform to the town’s building zone regulations and one that would be closer to conforming to the regulations than it is at present. Furthermore, he said, the application is not considered a subdivision because both lots in question were created before the town’s current zoning regulations were in place.

The synagogue’s application, however, is non-specific and may be viewed differently if presented to the commission in the future as an official site plan, Mr. Maitland said. Planning and Zoning Chairman Donald Heller agreed, assuring the dozens of residents who attended the meeting in opposition to the project that “there will be plenty of time for everybody to have their feelings heard … at the time a site plan is put into being.”

Contention over the issue began in the fall when the possibility of building a synagogue was first presented, prompting residents in the Orchard Street neighborhood to protest the synagogue’s construction in droves, citing concerns about increased traffic and a fear that the large structure would change the character of the residential neighborhood.

At the Planning and Zoning Commission’s Jan. 8 meeting, a final decision regarding the lot line battle was expected to be made. Instead, the commission requested that the attorneys representing each side of the case submit briefs summarizing court cases that would support their respective conclusions regarding the issue of subdivisions and lot lines. In order to sufficiently review the briefs, the commission said, it would need time, and it postponed its decision until Tuesday night’s meeting.

Although the commission ultimately chose to allow the passage of the synagogue’s proposed application in regard to lot line divisions, a number of residents spoke at Tuesday’s meeting to oppose the plan before a final decision was made. Sarah Littman, a leading voice in the opposition, argued that the Greenwich Reform Synagogue was “trying to have it both ways” by attempting to use the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) to make its case.

Enacted by Congress in 2000, RLUIPA gives religious institutions a way to avoid burdensome zoning restrictions on their property use. Therefore, Ms. Littman said, by asking the commission to consider the lot line issue and not dwell on future concerns, while simultaneously suggesting that the application could be protected under RLUIPA, the Greenwich Reform Synagogue’s case contradicts itself.

And while the synagogue claimed a victory Tuesday night, it was only the first step in a process expected go on for close to a year, if not longer, 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.

The neighbors are also expected to file an appeal of the commission’s decision.


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