Hartford Business Journal Editorial
Oct. 8, 2007
Once, the people of Connecticut had such a thing called “property rights.” Absent installing a public health hazard, one was pretty much free to do with one’s land what one wanted. This was, of course, before planning and zoning did a little rearranging of the notion of private property.
It is hard to argue that some central planning is not a good idea. Take a drive through the industrial parks of Newington, where tool and die companies are incongruously interspersed with a house here and a farm there, and it’s pretty clear that the notion of different zones for residential and commercial uses is probably an advancement over scattershot development.
But the problem of gaining a little control over what others can do with their property is that it eventually leads to wanting a lot of control. Nowhere does that happen faster than on historic district commissions, where the test for membership seems to be just how sternly one can wag a finger.
Yes, yes, historic preservation is important. But houses are meant for the living, not the dead. As such, they need to be functional. In that regard, historic district commissions must balance their desire to maintain a veneer of the past with property owners’ wishes to be able to actually use their buildings.
Sometimes, this tension plays out over items such as installing energy-efficient thermal windows in place of drafty, rotting wooden ones. But sometimes, it blossoms into a full scale constitutional battle. That’s what it is threatening to do in Litchfield.
In 2005, the orthodox Jewish organization Chabad Lubavitch of Litchfield County purchased a Victorian-era house on West Street, across from Litchfield’s town hall. The old home used to house a small store. A few weeks ago, the organization unveiled plans to convert the building into a temple. That would make it the village of Litchfield’s first synagogue — ever.
The conversion wouldn’t change much of the structure of the building as it currently exists. But it would mean adding a small steeple adorned with Hebrew lettering and, of course, a Star of David.
Whoaaaah! said the Litchfield Historic District Commission, sitting in the shadow of the picturesque Protestant church on the town green. A what?
Never mind that the area proposed for the temple is sometimes called “Church Row”. Commission chairwoman Wendy Kuhne’s hackles were raised over the prospect of the things needed to identify the building as a synagogue. She sparred with Chabad Lubavitch Rabbi Joseph I. Eisenbach and his architect, who insisted that their plan would retain the overall integrity of the 1872 house.
“A steeple will be added to the roof of the building and have a clock face with Hebrew alphabet lettering,” goes a portion of the minutes of the commission’s Sept. 6 meeting. “The siding will be a combination of wood and Jerusalem stone. Mrs. Kuhne noted her own objections to the stone which is not indigenous to the district, feels the clock tower is not appropriate, and the Star of David may not comply with the District.”
This is the same historic district commission which a few years back gained national notoriety for objecting to a pair of flower boxes put in front of a bed-and-breakfast, insanely asserting that there were, apparently, no flowers 200 years ago. So it is not surprising that it would also ignore certain constitutional principles — such as freedom of religion — in its quest to strong-arm architectural (and ecclesiastical) purity.
Chabad Lubavitch is fortunate in that it has Peter Herbst as its advocate. Herbst is a respected, quiet-spoken but effective attorney, whose views carry a lot of clout with the powers that be in this Yankee village. We tolerate a certain level of socialism in our land use regulations. But that tolerance has to end when the meddling crosses the line of constitutional principle. It is particularly loathsome when a board’s actions straddle the edge of religious discrimination.