P&Z, after lengthy contemplation, OKs Chabad expansion plan
Published 7:28 am, Friday, December 11, 2015
After a lengthy review, Chabad Lubavitch of Westport has won zoning officials’ blessing to expand the congregation’s home on Newtown Turnpike..
The Planning and Zoning Commission, after a second, lengthy session to consider the application, on Thursday gave approval for a larger sanctuary, more classroom space and a second-floor residence at 79 Newtown Turnpike, the historic building that once housed Three Bears restaurant. The application was approved 6-0, with Carolanne Curry, alternate member, abstaining.
Modifications to the property involving a separate plan had previously been approved by the P&Z about two years ago. But before starting work, congregation members decided on a more significant expansion and revised its plans, delaying the start until it could get new approvals. The revised plan has already won backing from the Zoining Board of Appeals.
Before closing the P&Z’s public hearing, Chairman Chip Stephens requested that the applicant guarantee moving forward with the project if approved.
“We have a very rough road in terms of past submissions, approvals and actually getting things done,” he said. “I would like to have somebody’s word that there’s a game plan to get this done in a timely fashion.”
“When we approved you last time there were a bunch of things that were never done, so I want some kind of reassurance that if we move ahead … it will get done,” he said.
Ken Gruder, counsel and Chabad supporter, assured Stephens the project would move forward.
“We’re motivated to, once the approvals are in place, commence work,” he said, noting that fundraising has been taking place.
He explained that under the new plans many of the previous changes, had they been completed, would have had to be undone or removed to accommodate the latest proposed work so the congregation thought it better to wait.
“Frankly I don’t buy that argument,” said Stephens, restating his concern during the work session and asking what could be done to guarantee the project is completed.
Commissioners briefly considered attaching conditions to the application, including making work on the drainage system a priority before any other work could begin.
“You did not discuss any of that at the public hearing,” Zoning Director Larry Bradley told the commission members. He said the commission can’t compel an applicant to complete a project, and that an applicant has five years from the time of approval to complete work before the approval expires.
Mel Barr, a consultant who had presented details of the Chabad application, noted at a previous meeting that a $110,000 bond already was posted for the earlier application. “They’re going to have a financial incentive to get that project done … There’s $110,000 that you’re holding from the last approval,” he said.
“If it’s not done we don’t issue a certificate of zoning compliance,” Bradley said.
“They went for three years living in that building without a CZC,” Commissioner Cathy Walsh said, adding, “History repeats.”
Questions were also raised about what was described as a four-bedroom, single-family dwelling that will be created on the property.
Gruder explained the residence is designed for guests who can’t travel in observance of their Sabbath, generally overnight on Fridays. “They may be coming with their spouse or children as well,” he said. “We need a place for them to stay that is either in walking distance or on site.”
“We don’t intend it to be a parsonage where the clergy is living there full time,” he said, nor will any fees be charged for its use.
P&Z members chose to identify it as a “dwelling unit” in the approval, with questions about the definiton of the building’s use. “I don’t like using the words ‘single-family house,’ ” Walsh said.
She also shared concerns she had heard from a neighbor several years ago about children running around in the parking lot during what she said appeared to be summer classes. “I really don’t want to see kids in a parking lot without some sort of protection,” she said.
The applicant noted that religious classes are only two hours in length and that students generally take breaks outside the classroom door in an adjacent grassy area. “There’s no summer camp proposed as part of this project,” Barr said. “We’re only dealing with religious education a couple of hours a week.”
Commissioners, however, added a requirement that “segregated space” be provided for student recreation in the approval.