Much-debated synagogue plan prompts parking rule proposal
Back in the days when Ludlow Road -- a street off the Post Road not far from the west bank of the Saugatuck River -- was named West Church Street, residents probably could not have envisioned the years-long unholy tussle provoked by a proposal to open a house of worship in the neighborhood, which is home to several historic houses.
Since January 2003, members of Beit Chaverim Synagogue of Westport/Norwalk have attempted to locate a synagogue on a property at 24 Ludlow Road, which is in a residential zone abutting a commercial zone to its south heading toward the Post Road.
After several revised site plans for the projects, as well as two lawsuits, the proposal remains in limbo, but the congregation continues its effort to win support while some neighbors continue to fight it.
"There's definite resistance from the neighbors," said Ric Nadel, co-president of Beit Chaverim, which describes itself as a "modern orthodox synagogue. However, the congregation of about 45 families from throughout the region needs a permanent home, he added.
The Beit Chaverim congregation currently worships in a temporary space at 85 Post Road West, which is rented from one of its members, developer Russell Bernard, from whom the congregation purchased the 24 Ludlow Road property in October 2007.
"Initially we started in people's houses and we had a temporary rabbi who went from house to house," said Nadel.
"We're in rented space that one of our congregants built for us initially, but the idea was always to find a permanent home."
"We want to know where we're going to be long term. We're looking to create a really warm, close sanctuary that will suit the needs of the congregation," he said. "At the same time we're trying to come up with a building design and overall site plan that works within the community because we're sensitive about that. We think we've come up with something that's original, creative and will satisfy the other people on the street."
But not everyone is satisfied. Lou Mall, a member of the RTM whose house is next to 24 Ludlow Road, said he would welcome the synagogue, and believes it would be an asset if it were located on an appropriate lot, preferably a commercial property along the Post Road.
"You have a AA-residential zoned property, but you're going to put a house of worship on a narrow street with a steep, blind hill which presents site line problems," Mall said. "It's too intense for this property and this neighborhood. It's a quart container," Mall said of the 1.19-acre property, "and they're trying to pour in a gallon of milk."
Mall said motorists accelerate to make the crest of the hill, and one entrance of the circular driveway in front of the house is right at the top of that hill.
"It's a cut-through street to begin with (between the Post Road and Kings Highway North)," said Ted Bohnen. He and his wife, Susan Harrington, live directly across the street from the site in a home designed and built in 1925 by noted Westport architect Frazier Peters. Bohnen said the lights of cars exiting from the parking lot after night services and events would shine right into their home. But that personal inconvenience is trumped by the safety and increased traffic concerns, he said, noting that there are a number of children who live nearby.
"It cannot safely absorb the level of activity proposed," Bohnen and Harrington said in a letter to the town's Architectural Review Board and Historic District Commission members, dated Dec. 13, 2011, urging both bodies to "reject the plans for an ultra-modern house of worship."
The fourth application for special permit and site plan approval for the synagogue project, which Beit Chaverim submitted to the Planning and Zoning office last September but temporarily withdrew Jan. 3, calls for razing the two existing structures -- the main house, built in 1868 and vacant for about a decade, and a barn in the back, with occupied apartments, which was constructed in 1900.
"The house is quite old and is in a terrible state of disrepair, and it has had many, many renovations over the years, and additions to it. It's of doubtful historic value," said Lawrence Weisman, the lawyer representing Beit Chaverim.
In place of those buildings the congregation would construct a new synagogue with a footprint of 2,500 square feet, said Weisman. The basement, which would be partially above and under ground, would add another 2,500 square feet, he said.
"It's a very low building, (about 18 feet high), and it's quite attractive. It's made of native stone and it has glass in the front and glass in the back," Weisman said of the proposed synagogue.
The building and parking, which would be in front of the synagogue closer to the street, would occupy little more than half the lot and the rest of it would remain lawn, he said. "The lot is screened from the neighbors to the north by a large stand of bamboo, which is going to remain, and the property to the immediate south is a commercial property as is the property immediately behind it" on Wright Street, Weisman said.
That plan, which will be re-filed pending clarification of the town's parking standards per Weisman's request, is larger than one approved by the town's Planning and Zoning Commission in July 2009 in a 4-3 vote. That one proposed renovating the main house as the synagogue and it would have held 60 fixed seats compared to the latest plan, which calls for seating for 84 congregants. It also would have provided four fewer than the 28 parking spaces now envisioned.
The P&Z is scheduled to review an amendment to the Westport zoning regulations concerning parking standards in a public hearing set for 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 16, in the Westport Town Hall auditorium. Copies of the amendments are available for view in Town Hall at the offices of the P&Z and Town Clerk.
An amendment application was submitted by Weisman in early January to modify the parking standards found in Section 34-5 of the zoning regulations. Specifically, the amendment as proposed would eliminate three separate categories of "Place of Worship, Theaters, and Auditoriums/Stadiums" -- which all have different requirements for parking -- in favor of a single standard that includes all of the above plus other "Places of Assembly," according to Laurence Bradley, the town's planning and zoning director.
Currently, theaters have a standard of one parking space for every three seats, auditoriums and stadiums one parking space for every five seats, and places of worship uses a standard established by the fire marshal based upon occupancy load.
The new standard for all of these categories would be one parking space for every three seats, or one parking space for every 45 square feet of floor space used for public assembly, whichever is greater. The text amendment would affect the entire town of Westport, not just the property on Ludlow.
"The question was how many parking spaces do we need to accommodate this building, and the parking regulations are not easy to interpret when it comes to houses of worship ... We want that clarification before we move forward," Weisman said.
In his proposal to change the P&Z's parking regulations, Weisman wrote: "Establishing a single standard is more rational and the Planning & Zoning Commission should not delegate its authority to the fire marshal for places of worship."
Meg Barone is a freelance writer.