Hearings on renewed efforts by a local Jewish congregation to build a new house of worship on Ludlow Road were closed by the Planning and Zoning Commission on Thursday night, and though no vote was taken on the revised application, two commissioners raised critical questions about the proposal.
Beit Chaverim Synagogue of Westport/Norwalk is seeking the P&Z's blessing for a site plan and special permit to build an approximately 4,000-square-foot, one-story center at 24 Ludlow Road. A a vacant three-story building and a rented cottage now on the property would be demolished.
The project, in various forms, has sparked opposition from neighbors for at least five years. The P&Z in 2008 rejected a plan to convert the larger building on the site into a house of worship, but approved a similar proposal in 2009. Beit Chaverim, however, did not move ahead with the 2009 plan.
At Thursday's meeting -- the fourth P&Z session on the current application since May -- two commission members raised their concerns about the plan.
Despite advice from P&Z Chairwoman Catherine Walsh that he not do so, Chip Stephens read aloud the bulk of the panel's five-page 2009 approval into the record. "Just to make it clear in everybody's mind what was approved last time," he said.
Stephens emphasized several passages in that document the expressed reservations about the project, including those from police officials about the site lines at the exit onto Post Road West. "We are still concerned about the site line to the left on Post Road West, which is inadequate," according to police at the time, noting that while it met P&Z regulations, it was not up to state standards.
Issues were also expressed at that time by fire officials about parking capacity at the site for those services that draw large crowds.
Stephens said the existence of a traffic speed study at the proposed synagogue site had been "misrepresented" and told Lawrence Weisman, the lawyer representing Beit Chaverim Synagogue, that "this is one area where you haven't been forthcoming."
"A speed study is not required by your regulations," responded Weisman, who maintains that the 2009 application and the current one involve "no substantial change." He also said that a speed analysis regarding for the property is already in the record.
Weisman said that people breaking the law by speeding up the hill on the Post Road near the entrance should not be considered a land-use problem. "This is not a referendum, nor is it a matter ... where we should be held to a standard that is not in your regulations," he said.
Meanwhile, P&Z member Alfred Gratrix conducted a traffic study of his own, using a laser pointer to measure speed of Post Road traffic near the entrance. He said vehicles weren't visible until they were only about 25 feet from the exit.
As part of his survey, Gratrix, a former police officer, said he left his car at the exit, activated its left-turn signal and walked down the road, where he noted many cars applied their brakes when they saw his car. He said this could lead to an accident.
"It only takes one to kill someone," Gatrix said.
Other issues were raised by Steve Nevas, the lawyer representing 24 families in the Ludlow Road neighborhood opposing the application.
Nevas read a statement from a Lincoln Street neighbor, Randy Ross, in which she noted noise from children involved in outdoor synagogue activities. "The applicant said (outdoor programs) don't exist, but they appear to exist at the temporary site at 85 Post Road West," he said.
Ross also cited an instance when two buses were parked on the street at the congregation's current location, blocking her driveway, as well as several occasions when parking overflowed onto Lincoln Street.
Nevas said the issue is not necessarily the number of Beit Chaverim congregants, but the much larger numbers of friends and family who might attend special events, increasing parking beyond capacity.
Nevas also questioned the 84-seat capacity of the synagogue's sanctuary. He said the applicants have already noted that for special services and programs, larger numbers of people might attend.
"We have sort of a disconnect here between what capacity is and what the congregation tells us is going to go on," he said.