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Synagogue plan in jeopardy
Expansion design too big, Litchfield board says
BY JOHN MCKENNA
Dec. 19, 2007
LITCHFIELD — Saying the expansion of a West Street house for use as a synagogue is too large, borough officials are poised to reject a proposal by Chabad Lubavitch of Litchfield County.
The Borough of Litchfield Historic District Commission is expected meet Thursday to vote on a motion denying the plans.
Under the terms of the proposed motion, Chabad Lubavitch would have an opportunity to revise the plan and bring it back to the commission.
During deliberations Tuesday, commissioners rejected a suggestion that denying Chabad’s plan would violate the group’s constitutional right to freedom of religion.
Instead, one night after the conclusion of a hearing on the plan, the commission expressed concern over the size of the proposed addition, saying it would overwhelm the house and dramatically alter the streetscape.
“To me, the inescapable conclusion is that (the addition)would engulf the structure we have been assigned to protect,” commissioner James Sansing said of the 135-year-old Victorian at 85 West St.
Chabad Lubavitch, an Orthodox Jewish outreach organization, is proposing to restore the house and build a two-story addition off of its rear. Totaling 21,000 square feet, the building would include a synagogue, quarters for Rabbi Joseph Eisenbach and his family, an apartment for Chabad staff and a swimmingpool.The proposal met resistance during the hearing from a group of borough residents who believe the addition, because of its size, would be inappropriate for the historic district. The group is represented by a Danbury lawyer, Neil Marcus, and hired architectural historian James Sexton to review the plan. On Monday, Sexton testified that some parts of the project have merit but criticized it for its size.
Thursday’s meeting of the commission will be held at 6 p.m. at the Litchfield firehouse and will see the panel vote on a motion calling for denial of the proposal. Under the terms of the motion, which is being crafted by the commission’s lawyer, James Stedronsky of Litchfield, Chabad Lubavitch would have an opportunity to redesign the project and submit a new proposal.
Dwight Merriam, the Hartford lawyer representing Chabad Lubavitch, had little to say after Tuesday’s meeting.
“I guess we’ll have to wait and see what the motion looks like,” Merriam said. “Until then, the commission will have 48 hours to think further about their responsibilities and what the rights of Chabad are.”
During the hearing, Merriam and Chabad Lubavitch’s other lawyer, Peter Herbst of Torrington, spent much time briefing the commission on the Constitutional right of freedom of religion and federal and state laws governing that right. By restricting Chabad Lubavitch’s proposal, the commission would be jeopardizing the right, they said.
That contention was rebuffed by the commission’s lawyer, who said a motion to deny the plan based on its size would not place the commission in violation of the Constitution and federal and state laws.
“I don’t think it would be an undue burden on Chabad,” the commission’s lawyer, Stedronsky said.
The commission on Tuesday focused only on the proposed size of the building. All agreed it is too large and would not be a good fit for the historic district. They suggested it be reduced in size so the house would not be dwarfed by the addition. Dropping the roof line of the addition and limiting it to one story with a full-use, walk-out basement was one of the ideas mentioned.
“The scale, the height, the depth all overwhelm the house and change its nature,” commissioner Glenn Hillman said. “I certainly feel it’s inappropriate in size and mass. The problem here is that it would be visible from 360 degrees.”
Synagogue issue debated
Litchfield board could decide by Thursday
BY JOHN MCKENNA
Dec. 18, 2007
LITCHFIELD — A proposal by Chabad Lubavitch of Litchfield County to restore and expand a 135-year-old West Street house for use as a synagogue is now in the hands of the borough of Litchfield’s Historic District Commission.
A public hearing on the Orthodox Jewish outreach organization’s application concluded Monday before a crowd of about 100 at the Litchfield firehouse. The commission will begin considering the plan tonight at 6 at the firehouse and could render a decision Thursday.
Chabad Lubavitch’s rabbi, Joseph Eisenbach of Litchfield, encouraged the commission to consider the quality of the proposedproject, his organization’s need to expand and public support shown by a town he said was once a bastion of anti-Semitism.
“This is not the Litchfield of yesteryear,” Eisenbach said. “It is now a sweet, unbiased, tolerant town. Make a decision based on the thousands of Litchfield residents who want another house of worship in town, not the few who are still intolerant.”
Chabad Lubavitch is proposing a restoration of the Victorian house at 85 West St. and construction of a two-story addition off of its rear. The 21,000 square-foot building would include a synagogue, quarters for Eisenbach and his family, an apartment for the Chabad staff and a swimming pool.
The plan has met resistance from a group of residents who believe the proposed addition is too large and would alter the streetscape and integrity of the historic district.
Six residents engaged a lawyer, Neil Marcus of Danbury, to fight the plan and 70 residents have contributed money to pay Marcus’ fee, according to Jack Veerman, one of the six residents.
A architectural historian representing the group, James Sexton, testified Monday the proposed addition, while having some admirable qualities,is not appropriate in size and scale and would be incongruous with the historic district. Sexton said the plan to restore the house has good points as well, such as replacing the foundation with Roxbury granite and returning the main entrance to a central location of the facade.
However, Sexton testified the house would be dwarfed by the addition, diminishing its historic character.
Eisenbach countered that the project would be a fit for the historic district and would complement the three churches in the district.
“It would be appropriate to celebrate history by having the world’s oldest religion in the district,” Eisenbach said of Judaism. “We want to build a synagogue that would be in keeping with the beauty of the town, and we feel we would do that.”
Patricia Sullivan, a lawyer filling in for Marcus, called the project a misfit, saying the building is oversized and would dramatically change the perspective of West Street.
But Peter Herbst, a Torrington lawyer representing Chabad Lubavitch, said the restoration would undo radical and inappropriate changes made to the house in 1981, when it was used for commercial purposes. As for the proposed addition, Herbst said it would be smaller than the addition to the Oliver Wolcott Library on South Street.
The library addition is attached to an 18th-century home built for Oliver Wolcott Jr., one of the town’s most historically-important figures.
Herbst reminded the commission that it is bound by Constitutional law governing religious freedom. Chabad Lubavitch, he said, has documented its need for a building of the proposed size and by restricting it the commission would risk legal consequences.
Editor's Note: Please see the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, aka RLUIPA.
Note Attorneys Fees section in this federal law:
RLUIPA is a federal statute that was passed in 2000 to provide stronger protection for religious freedom in the land-use and prison contexts.
RLUIPA has since been asserted in dozens of lawsuits, prompting widespread media coverage and scholarly attention.