Ten months after a devastating fire displaced the members of Saugatuck Congregational Church from their historic house of worship in downtown Westport, plans for its reconstruction surmounted the first of several municipal hurdles Tuesday.

The town's Architectural Review Board unanimously approved the special permit and site plan application for the Post Road East church, which was heavily damaged by a six-alarm inferno that erupted on the evening of Nov. 20, 2011. The cause was never determined.

And while the historic sanctuary escaped the brunt of the devastation, suffering primarily smoke and water damage, the structure at the rear of the sanctuary -- housing classrooms, offices, meeting rooms and a kitchen --was destroyed.

Saugatuck Congregational Church has a long history in the community. It has stood at 245 Post Road East since it was moved there in the 1950s, rolled there on logs -- which ARB Secretary Sally Palmer said she remembers witnessing -- but its presence on the Post Road dates back much farther.

"The church has been a visible and vital presence along the Post Road since 1832," said New Haven architect Paul B. Bailey. He and John Walsh, chairman of the church's board of trustees and its building committee, presented the proposed reconstruction plan to the ARB at Tuesday's meeting, using detailed architectural before and after drawings to highlight the changes.

Modifications include an enlarged and more welcoming rear entrance, a combination small chapel and music room to be created in the space that once housed the choir room, a dedicated youth room on the third floor, and raising the roof by about six feet. "It's still consistent with the rest of the church. The sanctuary is still higher," Bailey said.

Space formerly used by the Saugatuck Nursery School will be re-created and enhanced, bringing it in line with current building codes, and the fellowship room will be re-created as it was, Bailey said.

One of the most visible changes will integrate Hoskins Hall with an exterior garden. "We're digging out about six feet and three windows will become doors," said Bailey. Those doors will bring more natural light into the hall and will make the garden more accessible, he said.

"You'll be drawn outside. It's a beautiful garden, but you can't appreciate it from that level" as it currently exists," Bailey said.

"This is a beautiful space right now, but it doesn't get a lot of use," Walsh said. "What we're really excited about is being able to open up Hoskins Hall into the sunken garden area."

The planned change would have one flowing into the other, and would allow more use of the garden for fellowship and outside events hosted by groups that rent the church space, he said. "It is very much a public space so it opens it up to broader use by the community," Walsh said.

Saugatuck Congregational Church was the site of many activities for both church and community groups. Walsh said, for instance, the Wisemen of Westport met there every Thursday from September to May, and about 50 12-step meetings took place at the church each week, he said.

The church also is known throughout the region for the large community banquets it hosts for anyone interested on Thanksgiving and Christmas/

"All these groups had to relocate elsewhere after the fire. We hope they will come back," Walsh said, although it will be a while before the church can accommodate its own services as well as outside functions. Once the plans are approved by several other land-use bodies, the reconstruction process is expected to get under way, perhaps by next spring.

Although the fire created major challenges for the congregation, Walsh said it also presented a unique opportunity to make modifications that move the congregation's ministries beyond the fire repairs.