Lawyers Aren't Saying Why
Could It Have Anything To Do
With Prejudicial Statements?
"The Star of David may not comply with the District."
-- Hysterical District Commission Chairman Wendy Kuhne
“A steeple will be added to the roof of the building and have a clock face with Hebrew alphabet lettering. 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 ... "
Editor's Note: The Historic District Commission has no authority over work that cannot be seen from the street but in practice routinely tries to assert such authority over unsuspecting property owners.
Hearing opens on Chabad plan
Litchfield panel leader agrees to recuse herself
BY JOHN MCKENNA
LITCHFIELD — The Litchfield Historic District Commission will be without its chairman as it considers Chabad Lubavitch of Litchfield County’s plan to restore and expand a West Street house for use as a synagogue and Jewish community center. Wendy Kuhne, the chairman, has recused herself from the hearing on the Orthodox Jewish sect’s application for a certificate of appropriateness for the project. Kuhne sat in the audience when the hearing opened Thursday at the Litchfield firehouse.
She was asked to step aside for the hearing by Chabad Lubavitch’s lawyers, Kuhne said Friday.
During two preliminary hearings on the plan for 85 West St., Kuhne expressed concerns about the effect the proposed project would have on the historic character of the town center.
Chabad Lubavitch’s lead lawyer, Peter Herbst of Torrington, declined to comment Friday and referred questions about Kuhne to another Chabad lawyer, Dwight Merriam of Hartford. Citing the pending application, Merriam declined to comment.
The hearing is scheduled to resume Dec. 6 at 6 p.m. at the Litchfield firehouse. Assuming Kuhne’s role as chairman for the hearing is Joseph Montebello.
Chabad Lubavitch’s proposal is one of the largest to come before the historic district commission. It involves restoration of the 135-year-old Victorian house the sect bought two years ago and calls for construction of a two-story addition off the rear of the house that would have a footprint of 4,345 square feet. Including the house, the total footprint of the building would be 5,673 square feet.
Along with being one of the largest proposals the commission has faced, the plan is generating an increasing amount of public interest. The project, if approved, would alter the architectural streetscape of the section of West Street between Meadow Street and Center School.
Herbst, in remarks during the hearing, said he couldn’t recall over the past 20 years an application that has so captivated the public. Chabad Lubavitch, which traces its roots to the Brooklyn section of New York City, has had a presence in Litchfield since 1996.
Its members have been worshipping in a storefront in the Village Green plaza on West Street for several years. Chabad’s men, with their long beards and black top hats and clothing, can often be seen walking along West Street en route to the storefront. They are led by Rabbi Joseph Eisenbach. Due to state and federal law governing the freedom of religion, the historic district commission can’t stop the proposed synagogue. The commission will have a say over the look of the building, however.
Kuhne, free to speak on the plan, said she raised concerns about the Jerusalem fieldstone foundation Chabad Lubavitch is proposing to install under the house. Jerusalem fieldstone, she said, is not indigenous and would be inappropriate in the historic district. She also expressed reservations about the planned addition for the rear of the house.
“If you are going to come into the historic district and turn a historic residence into something different, it would fly in the face of historic preservation,” Kuhne said. “They are going to have to respect the house and streetscape around it. This is going to be a very tough call, but I’m sure the commission will make the correct decisions.”
Despite her concerns, Kuhne did say she supports Chabad Lubavitch’s right to practice its religion. Once the historic district commission is through with the proposal, it will move to the Planning and Zoning Commission.