Ahead of a May review by the Planning and Zoning Commission of plans to open a religious center at the site of the former Three Bears restaurant, representatives of the Jewish outreach group, Chabad Lubavitch of Westport, sought Monday night to rally neighbors' support for the proposal.

After relocating in January to 79 Newtown Turnpike -- where the restaurant had done business for decades -- Chabad is seeking P&Z approval for a site plan and special permit to stay at the property permanently.

"I think we have an obligation to keep this building the way it looks now and to keep it historically intact," said Larry Weisman, Chabad's land-use lawyer. "The integrity of the building should not be changed."

Chabad was issued a violation notice in January by the town after a neighbor filed a complaint over building improvements that were performed without the group first gaining P&Z approval for a site plan and special permit for 79 Newtown Turnpike. Chabad has since acquired a building permit to perform on-site work and has corrected building code violations, according to its general counsel, Ken Gruder.

Weisman, meanwhile, has obtained an abeyance from the town that allows Chabad to stay at 79 Newtown Turnpike while its site plan and special permit application are reviewed.

Chabad is seeking to renovate the interior of the building on the property. If it gains P&Z approval, the group would begin the revamp, a process that would likely be completed sometime in the summer, Weisman said. The new center would include a sanctuary, five classrooms, office space and a lounge on the first floor. Chabad would also occupy parts of the second floor, but it would not use the building's third level.

Chabad also plans to paint parking-space stripes on the parking lot; relocate the driveway to improve access, egress and sight lines, and to landscape the property, according to a statement included in its site plan and special permit application to the P&Z. The building's footprint and elevation would remain unchanged, the statement adds.

The new center would host worship services, religious education programs, holiday celebrations, special events and community activities, the application also states. A 75-space parking lot would accommodate most programs and services at the center. For more popular events such as bar and bat mitzvahs, Chabad could use a lot across the street at the 3, 4 Open the Door preschool for overflow parking, while that center could use Chabad for off-site parking in what Weisman described as a "neighborly exchange."

Chabad of Westport already runs a religious school at 79 Newtown Turnpike, which convenes twice a week and has an enrollment of about 50 students.

"Communal life is very important for both adults and children," Chabad Rabbi Yehuda Kantor told the Westport News after the meeting. "We serve Westport's community, and this community center would bring out its unity."

Additional traffic generated by Chabad would produce an "insignificant, if any" increase in traffic delays at the adjacent Newtown Turnpike-Wilton Road intersection, according to a traffic impact and access study conducted by Frederick P. Clark Associates. The center would generate less traffic than another restaurant on the premises, Weisman said.

The property has a functioning septic system and would not seek a connection to the town sewer system, Weisman added.

Before its move, Chabad of Westport was based on Ketchum Street in the town's Saugatuck section for about two years. Chabad left its Saugatuck base because that space will undergo an overhaul as part of the ongoing Saugatuck Center redevelopment project. Previously, Chabad gatherings had been held at the Kings Highway North home of Kantor, among other Westport venues.

Chabad Lubavitch draws members from Westport, Wilton and Norwalk. Between 25 and 45 people usually attend Chabad services, Kantor said.

About two dozen residents attended the Monday meeting at 79 Newtown Turnpike, with none expressing opposition to Chabad operating a community center there.

"I'm very much in favor of it," said Jimmy Izzo, a Representative Town Meeting, from District 3, which includes the property. "It's a good plan -- they won't be expanding the building footprint and they would be fixing up an old building. It would be an asset to the area."

Another RTM District 3 member, Melissa Kane, also expressed support.

"I think Chabad has very transparent plans," she said. "I look forward to seeing what happens."

Chabad is leasing 79 Newtown Turnpike, which is now owned by Three Bears Associates, but plans to buy the property later this year, Gruder added.

The Three Bears Restaurant closed in 2009. Another restaurant, Tiburon, subsequently operated there briefly, but the property had been vacant for more than two years until Chabad moved in two months ago.

The 9,100-square-foot building at 79 Newtown Turnpike sits on a 2.7-acre lot near the Wilton town line. The property has an appraised value of approximately $1.7 million, according to the Vision Appraisal website.

The P&Z is scheduled to begin its review of Chabad Lubavitch of Westport's site plan and special permit application at a public hearing scheduled Thursday, May 3 in Town Hall.

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