A Jewish congregation's controversial proposal to build a new house of worship on the outskirts of the town center on Ludlow Road sparked criticism and doubts from opponents and Planning and Zoning Commission members Thursday night as another proposal to build a synagogue was outlined.
Beit Chaverim Synagogue of Westport/Norwalk is seeking P&Z approval for a site plan and special permit to build an approximately 4,000-square-foot, one-story center at 24 Ludlow Road. The existing structures -- a vacant three-story building and a cottage with one tenant -- on the land would be demolished.
A 27-space parking lot accessed by one driveway would serve the synagogue, while the plan also envisions an approximately 20-space grass overflow area on the site. Beit Chaverim could also use a 30-space lot at its current home at 85 Post Road West for overflow parking, according to the congregation's lawyer, Larry Weisman.
Ludlow Road, a residential thoroughfare that intersects Post Road West, could accommodate the 60-family modern Orthodox synagogue, Weisman argued.
"This application complies in all respects with the applicable regulations as to lot size, area, shape coverage, setbacks, parking, internal circulation," he said.
Beit Chaverim's bid to build a new synagogue has a long and contentious history. In recent years, it has submitted several applications to zoning officials seeking permission for a house of worship at the Ludlow Road property, but neighbors have opposed the efforts. The P&Z in 2008 rejected a plan to convert the larger building to a house of worship, but approved a similar proposal in 2009. Beit Chaverim, however, did not move ahead with the 2009 plan.
To facilitate the new site plan, Weisman last year submitted a text amendment that proposed a new parking standard for houses of worship, another proposal that was resisted by many of Beit Chaverim's neighbors. The P&Z eventually approved a revised version, which stipulates that one parking space be allocated for every 35 square feet in a sanctuary and every 40 square feet in rooms other than a sanctuary that are used for social functions.
The latest site plan was submitted in August 2012 and then resubmitted several times as P&Z Department staff worked with Beit Chaverim to bring the application into compliance, said P&Z Director Larry Bradley.
Overflow spaces would be needed, "if at all," no more than five times per year on High Holidays and an "occasional" wedding or bar mitzvah, according to a March 12 revised statement filed by the applicant
Despite the plan's revisions, town officials have continued to raise concerns about the application. In comments submitted last month to zoning officials, police highlighted the "vague number of `special' occasions where the facility will be used for other purposes" and an "unknown number of occasions" when overflow parking would be required.
Architectural Review Board members, meanwhile, have declined to recommend the application, describing the proposed sanctuary's design as "not acceptable."
The application also encountered skepticism at Thursday's P&Z meeting.
Stephen Nevas, a lawyer representing 19 families who live on Ludlow Road or neighboring streets, strongly criticized the plan.
"The applicant's parking and proposed parking facilities are inadequate and will create unsafe and chaotic conditions on Ludlow Road," he said. "The intensity of uses based on lawful capacity of the structure will easily and often, we think, overwhelm the residents of Ludlow Road."
Several P&Z commissioners also appeared unenthusiastic about the proposal.
"I'm very concerned about the drop-offs," said Chairwoman Catherine Walsh. "It's an issue ... I think the intensity is going to be overwhelming."
Walsh's board colleague, Al Gratrix, also expressed concerns.
"I also see a problem with headlights coming up there," he said. "It's not just the house across the street; it's every house to the left and every house to the right. I don't think that's going to be very acceptable to anyone on Ludlow."
Orchard Hill resident Peter Eyes, the only neighbor to comment Thursday, voiced opposition.
"I think the focus on safety is absolutely critical, and it's a major expectation that I have as a citizen of my government," he said. "It's common sense that you can't put this much intensity in 1.6 acres."
About a dozen other neighbors raised their hands to speak, but time constraints prompted Walsh to recommend that they comment at the next hearing.
The P&Z did not vote on Beit Chaverim's site plan, and plans to continue its review at a public hearing set for 7 p.m. June 6 in the Town Hall auditorium.
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