Out of the ashes of a devastating fire has risen a plan for a new era at Saugatuck Congregational Church.
The restoration of the Post Road East house of worship is set to move ahead after the Planning and Zoning Commission gave unanimous approval Thursday night to a site plan and special permit for the project.
A fire that erupted the night of Nov. 20, 2011, destroyed most of the complex at the rear of the property that housed offices, nursery school classrooms and meeting rooms. After several hours battling the blaze, firefighters from Westport and five other departments finally extinguised the flames the following morning.
The church's sanctuary suffered water and smoke damage, but it emerged from the conflagration mostly unscathed.
"It's been a difficult year," said John Walsh, chairman of the church's Board of Trustees. "After months of dealing with insurance companies, remediation and cleaning, we're very excited that we're going to start to move forward."
Renovation of the church will include the refurbishment of the rooms destroyed by the fire and the construction of two new rear entrances, including an entryway for the Saugatuck Nursery School. Where the rear roof collapsed, a new, slightly higher one will be built to allow for use of the third floor again. In addition, a new terrace will be built between the church's garden and Hoskins Hall, a room for social events underneath the church's sanctuary.
Other improvements will include fire and building code upgrades, better handicap access and the installation of air conditioning throughout the church complex.
The church's historic steeple and sanctuary will not be altered by the renovations. Saugatuck Congregational's house of worship was built in the early 1830s on the southern side of Post Road East, just yards from its current location. The building was moved across the Post Road to its present site in 1950. The church's rear portion was added a few years later.
P&Z members were quick to praise the restoration.
"I'm very happy that it's come to this point," said P&Z Chairwoman Catherine Walsh.
Morley Boyd, a resident of Violet Lane, a street neighboring the church property, was the only member of the public to comment on the church's renovation plans. He signaled his support for the project, but expressed concern about the potential impact of the parking lot lights.
"I'm very concerned about how they plan to light that parking lot, with the full understanding that it needs to be," he said. "I'd like to make a special plea that the lighting is of a more humane nature."
Following Boyd's testimony, P&Z members moved to approve Saugatuck Congregational's site plan with the stipulation that a town landscaping committee must approve a lighting plan submitted by the church. The committee is composed of P&Z Director Larry Bradley, P&Z planner Michelle Perillie and P&Z commissioner Howard Lathrop.
The parking lot lights will only be turned on at night when events are held at the church, Saugatuck Congregational's lawyer John Fallon told the P&Z.
"We'll contain the lighting on site and we'll improve most significantly the concern Mr. Boyd raises," Fallon said. "They'll be modern, shielded and prevent glare and light trespass."
Saugatuck Congregational leaders hope to begin restoring the church complex next spring. They plan to re-open the church building by the fall of 2014. In the meantime, congregants mostly meet for worship services at Temple Israel on Coleytown Road.
Church officials are planning to launch a capital campaign to help finance the restoration, but they have not yet announced a fundraising goal.
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