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Friday, July 26, 2013

At P&Z, Planned Synagogue vs. Neighbors

By James Lomuscio

The sensitive issue of a planned house of worship in a tight residential zone where neighbors object to increased traffic came before Westport’s Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) tonight, the third and final public hearing on the matter the commission closed and will vote on at a later date, according to P&Z Chairwoman Catherine Walsh.

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Planning and Zoning Commission members listen to representatives of both sides tonight on the Ludlow Road synagogue issue. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) James Lomuscio for WestportNow.com

On one side was Lawrence Weisman, attorney for Beit Chaverim Synagogue which owns the 1.2-acre property at 24 Ludlow Road. The P&Z had already approved a different site plan for the synagogue Aug. 4, 2009. The synagogue now has a new plan at the site with modifications, and Weisman asserts the commission is obliged to approve it because of the previous approval..

On the other side was Stephen Nevas, attorney for 24 families on Ludlow Road, who says the new plan calls for a larger structure and a more intensified use that will add congestion to the road due to inadequate parking and pose safety problems. The neighborhood group is being headed by Lou Mall, a member of the Representative Town Meeting.

“There are dramatic changes to the size of it,” said Dan Fisher, a Ludlow Road resident. “It looks like it’s bigger.

Weisman called the claim of dramatic changes, “laughable,” since the new plan calls for one building instead of two. The old plan was for one one of the existing buildings to be used as a synagogue, the other for residences.

“It’s laughable,” Weisman said. “We’re proposing one building instead of two.”

He added that the new site plan aplication is for the synagogue to be situated toward the rear of the property and closer to a commercial district.

“And there is a lot more open space and (vegetative) screening for neighbors,” Said Weisman. ” ...When you have a non-residential use in a residential neighborhood, you have to be sensitive to the neighbors.”

But Nevas says the new application has a substantially greater building capacity.

“The former proposal is for a 60-seat sanctuary, but now they’re asking for 84 seats,” Nevas said.

He added that since since the seats are not to be fixed, the state fire and building codes “require you have seating based on square footage, and that would allow 112 seats.”

“An official for the congregation said they would like to have up to 150 seats,” Nevas noted. “That would be a 150 percent increase over what was approved in 2009. ...The sanctuary is larger, the vestibule is totally new and large at 722 square feet, and there’s a larger community room downstairs.”

Regarding parking, Nevas said the site was approved for 24 spaces, “but this would authorize 28 permanent spaces, plus 20 on-site, overflow spaces, plus 30 more off-site spaces at 85 Post Road West for a total of 77.

“That’s a 175 percent increase in parking,” he said.

P&Z member Nora Jinishian noted that neighbors’ concerns are that “this is a much larger congregation than presented by the applicant.” Synagogue proponents have said that the congregation currently has 60 families.

P&Z member Ronald Corwin asked Weisman about the possibility of a membership cap on the congregation.

“You’re treading on dangerous ground if you’re trying to cap the membership of a religious institution,” said Weisman. “I would like to see a cap in reference to traffic concerns than membership.”

Corwin agreed.

Nevas noted that it is reasonable to assume that the congregation intends to grow based on the size of the new facility.

“As they say, ‘If you build it, they will come,’ ” he said. 

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Posted 07/26/13 at 03:15 AM  Permalink



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