Friday, December 21, 2007

Litchfield Hysterical District Sets Up Court Battle

"If this case is litigated, it is hard to imagine that the Congregation
will have difficulty meeting its burden to show that the commission's
application of zoning laws substantially burdens
the congregation's exercise of religion."

-- Dec. 13 letter from the Anti-Defamation League to the commission.


Historic District Rejects Synagogue

Courant Staff Writers
December 21, 2007

— An orthodox Jewish group and the borough of Litchfield moved one step closer to a court battle over religious freedom on Thursday night after the historic district commission denied the organization's application to turn a Victorian home into a synagogue.

For the past six months, Rabbi Joseph Eisenbach of the Chabad-Lubavitch congregation has been meeting with the commission about his plans to restore a house on West Street and build an addition of about 20,000 square feet on the edge of the town's historic district.

But in Thursday night's action — a seven-page decision read out loud by acting commission Chairman Joseph Montebello — the commission said it was denying the existing application and would welcome a new application by Chabad-Lubavitch only if it scaled back its plans to a total of 6,000 square feet.

The commission made it clear that it had worked hard to avoid any semblance of prejudice against Chabad-Lubavitch's plan to build the town's first synagogue, and the decision cited two recent federal decisions on religious freedom in zoning decisions.

"Several people worked very hard all day drafting this decision so that we would look completely fair," Montebello said during a recess in the hearing.

But in remarks after the hearing, Eisenbach and his attorney, Dwight Merriam of Hartford, indicated they were not prepared to reduce the scale of their building and might rest court complaints on the principle of religious freedom. They also pointed out the proposed synagogue would be in a neighborhood with three other congregations — Episcopalian, Methodist and Roman Catholic — that have structures substantially larger than the building envisioned by Chabad-Lubavitch.

"We deliberately picked this site two years ago because we wanted to be at the center of religious worship in Litchfield and contribute to the life of the town," Eisenbach said.

"All the Chabad wants is to be treated like other religions, to be on church row and have a structure of equal size to those churches," Merriam said. "But the commission has denied us that right tonight, and there are many remedies under the law with which to proceed."

While the denial of Chabad-Lubavitch's controversial plans to renovate and expand a 135-year-old West Street home could result in legal action against the historic district commission, it was the outcome those who opposed the project were seeking.

About 70 residents, according to one published report, had joined together in recent weeks to fight Chabad-Lubavitch. They hired Danbury attorney Neil Marcus and brought in a historical architect earlier this week to testify against the plans on the grounds that the building wouldn't meld with the rest of the historic district.

The commission appears to have agreed with the opponents. It rejected arguments from Chabad-Lubavitch's lawyers Thursday night that the proposal had special protection under the First Amendment because they are a religious organization.

Instead, the commission followed advice from its own legal counsel, who said commissioners had an obligation under the law to treat the application as they would any other — regardless of its intended use.

The commission objected to the size and scope of the proposed addition — which would result in a building that contains a synagogue, indoor pool and 5,000-square foot home for the rabbi and his family, among other things — as well as plans to install a clock tower from the roof of the original structure.

It denied the application in a motion that gives Chabad-Lubavitch an opportunity to resubmit plans for a much smaller building without a clock tower. Instead, the commission would allow Chabad-Lubavitch to install a finial with a Star of David atop the building.

The decision was expected by Eisenbach, who issued a statement after the vote Thursday.

"Over the last six months we were given a laundry list of changes every time we met with the commission and we made over 40 changes," Eisenbach said. "But now they have denied us and we have many options. Within a week, we will make a decision about what to do."

Chabad-Lubavitch now has three options: scale down its plans and resubmit them to the commission; appeal the decision in Superior Court within 15 days of the published decision under current state land use laws; or appeal the decision under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, otherwise known as RLUIPA.

The act, which was signed into law by President Clinton in 2000, was intended to provide stronger protection for religious freedom in land-use and prison cases.

In the land-use context, the federal law prohibits government agencies from imposing regulations in a way that would impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person or group, unless it can prove that there is a compelling government interest or is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.

The project has provoked intense interest — and disagreement — since its inception. At a September pre-hearing, some members of the commission, including the chairwoman, questioned whether the Star of David "complied with the district" and questioned the appropriateness of other aspects of the plan, including the use of Jerusalem stone, the stained glass windows and the clock tower.

Accusations of anti-Semitism were leveled against the chairwoman, who is Jewish, and she eventually recused herself from deliberations. But the controversy didn't end there.

Residents who attended the final public hearing on the plans urged the commission not to be "bullied" by Chabad-Lubavitch or the threat of litigation. Others left the hearing shortly after Eisenbach stood up to speak.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Anti-Defamation League also both weighed in on the controversy, writing separate letters reminding the commission that it must take into consideration Chabad-Lubavitch's rights under the First Amendment and RLUIPA.

"If this case is litigated, it is hard to imagine that the Congregation will have difficulty meeting its burden to show that the commission's application of zoning laws substantially burdens the congregation's exercise of religion," said a Dec. 13 letter from the Anti-Defamation League to the commission.


Synagogue plan rejected
Litchfield rabbi says anti-Semitism is a factor


LITCHFIELD — Chabad Lubavitch of Litchfield County will consider whether to scale back its plan to convert an an­tique home into a synagogue or challenge Thursday’s denial by the borough of Litchfield Historic District Commission in court.

The denial, which was ex­pected, was based on the scaleof the proposed expansion and some aspects of the restoration of the 135-year-old house at 85 West St.

By rejecting the project with­out prejudice, the commission gives Chabad Lubavitch, an Orthodox Jewish outreach organization, a chance to submit a downsized proposal.

“Our attorneys and our architect will look at our options,” Joseph Eisenbach, Chabad’s rabbi, said after the commission made its decision. “God willing, things will work out for us and we’ll have our synagogue.”

Eisenbach suggested that anti-Semitism was afoot in town during the hearings the com­mission held on the proposal between Nov. 15 and Monday.

“Some of the things that were said carried an undertone of rage and hate,” Eisenbach said. “But we are blessed with much support, so our focus is on moving forward and not on those who are intolerant.”

The commission’s lawyer, James Stedronsky of Litchfield, said religious discrimination never came into play in Chabad’s proposal being turned down. Stedronsky authored the seven-page motion for denial the commission approved.

In rendering its decision, the commission, Stedronsky wrote, was acting in accordance with the First Amendment of the Constitution, the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person’s Act, and the Connecticut Religious Freedom Act, all of which protect the right of religious exercise.

Chabad’s plan called for construction of a four-story addition off the rear of the 2,600-square-foot house, a Victorian that was to be restored to its 19th century state. The house and addition would have totaled 21,000 square feet and would have included space for a synagogue, a Jewish community center, housing for Eisenbach and his family, quarters for Chabad staff, several kosher kitchens and a swimming pool.

Chabad’s lawyer, Dwight Merriam of Hartford, said he found fault with several points in the motion for denial.

“All Chabad wants is to be treated the same as other religious institutions and the opportunity to carry out its mission,” Merriam said. “The commission has denied that ability.”

Merriam added that many of the issues mentioned in the motion were not discussed by the commission during its deliberation session Tuesday. The session ended with the commission directing Stedronsky to author the motion for denial.

“There are a lot of questions that need to be answered,” Merriam said.

The size of the proposed ad­dition was the primary reason for denial, although the com­mission also found fault with the plan to place a clock tower on top of the house and remove its front door, which is likely original, in favor of a new one. According to the motion, the size of the addition and the two changes for the house were in violation of the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings.

The addition as planned, according to the motion for denial, would have dwarfed the house, altered the streetscape and been incompatible with the standards of the historic district.

The character of the house, one of several built in town by the Deming family in the 18th and 19th centuries, would have been diminished by the addition, the commission said. Stedronsky wrote that the commission would approve an addition equal in square footage to the house but with more below-grade space that would give Chabad more than 6,000 square feet of usable space. The addition’s roof line and width would have to be subordinate to the roof and width of the house, according to the motion.

“This decision allows a building and addition that would substantially enhance the applicant’s current religious practices,” Stedronsky wrote, referring to Chabad’s use of a 3,000-square-foot storefront at the Village Green plaza on West Street.

“A future plan by the applicant, conforming to this decision, would also restore the Deming house and thereby enhance the historical character of the immediate neighborhood. It would be a welcome improvement to the town of Litchfield and its historic district.”

Zeus Goldberg, who lives outside the historic district, welcomed the denial. At the hearing, Goldberg encouraged Chabad to create a plan that would be in harmony with the district and reduce the threat of resentment by the town.

“I think the commission tonight has reached out and offered a compromise,” Goldberg said.

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