Thursday, December 27, 2007

You Don't Have To Be An Einstein To Figure Out What Was Going On Here

Chabad Ponders Its Next Move In Litchfield

"Fortunately we have
a federal system
that allows the 'real' best."

By Emily Olson
Litchfield County Times

LITCHFIELD-As expected, the Litchfield Historic District Commission has denied Chabad Lubavitch of Northwest Connecticut's application for a certificate of appropriateness to expand and develop a West Street property in the town center. What remains to be seen is whether the issue of religious freedom versus local land-use control will head to court and if the whispers of anti-Semitism will continue to divide the community.

The commission voted on the plan last Thursday night, concluding a series of hearings that focused on the size and scope of the project to relocate Chabad's headquarters from Village Green Drive to Litchfield center on Route 202.

The historic building the organization purchased in 2006 is the former home of the Wilderness Shop and has been used by various businesses for many years. It was built by one of Litchfield's well-known families, the Demings, in 1872.

The commission based its denial on the scale of the proposed expansion and some aspects of the restoration of the 135-year-old building. Commission members rejected the project "without prejudice," meaning that the panel is willing to consider a revised plan, including a downsized version.

Recently, the commission's attorney, Jim Stedronsky, said that a downsized version could involve a doubling of the original square footage of the building, meaning that the commission would consider a plan totaling about 5,000 square feet.

The Chabad's plan, however, calls for something much larger than that: an expansion totaling 21,000 square feet, with a four-story addition off the back of the old house. The expansion would have included a synagogue, a community center, classrooms, several kosher kitchens, offices, rooms, several kosher kitchens, offices, classrooms, a swimming pool and a ceremonial pool. The facility would also have residential quarters for Rabbi Joseph Eisenbach and his family, according to a published report, as well as housing for visitors and staff.

The historic commission's motion for denial, written by Mr. Stedronsky, stated that the proposal would overwhelm the historic district. The addition, he wrote, would have "dwarfed the house, altered the streetscape and been incompatible with standards of the historic district."

"I think it was a very sad day for all tolerant and loving people in town," Rabbi Eisenbach said during a telephone interview Wednesday. "Over the last three days, we haven't had so much correspondence as in the last 12 years, with people calling, stopping by, rolling down their windows in their cars ... it's been something, to hear all the support."

The motion stated that the decision for denial would allow a building and addition based on a smaller scale, Mr. Stedronsky wrote. If the project is scaled back, it would better conform to the historic district's character and be "a welcome improvement to the town of Litchfield and its historic district," he wrote.

The Chabad organization, Rabbi Eisenbach said, is still deciding what steps it will take next.

"The Chabad wants to do what is best, and God willing, we will do that," he said. "The commission might have done its best, but fortunately we have a federal system that allows the 'real' best."

The commission's charge to preserve historic character in the borough has been overshadowed by the specter of anti-Semitism since the changes were first proposed in the fall.

Commission chairman Wendy Kuhne was harshly criticized for her purported comment regarding the Star of David planned for the fa├žade of the building, and was eventually asked to recuse herself from the proceedings because she was "biased."

Not long afterward, Mrs. Kuhne's name appeared in an online blog accompanied by a photograph showing a blond woman in a Nazi uniform. Another blogger, journalist Andy Thibault, posted criticial comments about the Historic Distric Commission's control over property rights, as well as posting a link to the offending Nazi photo.

Rabbi Eisenbach, meanwhile, recalled that Litchfield has not always been friendly to those who are Jewish, and posted a 1940s article published in The Nation that depicted the town as a place where Jews were prevented from buying property, from eating peacefully in restaurants and from visiting local establishments. Thankfully, he said, "That is the Litchfield of yesteryear ... this is a lovely town, with majority of this town being kind, sweet, caring, unbiased and just tolerant."

The rabbi has also maintained throughout the application process that the expansion of Chabad Lubavitch is absolutely necessary for the organization to function. Its current location on Village Green Drive includes an office and kitchen, where any and all events and functions of the Chabad must be held. Any large program, religious service or public event must be held elsewhere.

"Chabad currently has no place for Jewish children to have a preschool, no place for our community to use a mikvah [a ceremonial pool] ... people drive hours for these programs, and are looking forward to having [them locally in town]," he said. "The preservation and adaptive reuse of the Deming House is appropriate and the minimum necessary to carry out the Chabad's religious beliefs. It is intended to be a center for religious ceremony and celebration, and for carrying out the religious mission of the Chabad."

The rabbi noted many inconsistencies with the commission's decision and cited changes to other historic structures in town, including Rose Haven on North Street, a retirement facility whose front structure is an old Deming house; the Oliver Wolcott Library on South Street, which is a historic building with modern additions to its rear, and the Cramer & Anderson law offices on West Street, another old building with rear expansions.

"There are some serious inconsistencies with expansions in the historic district community," he said. "What's noteworthy is that close to 50 percent of our expansion is underground, not visible from West Street. The Chabad really feels if there was any legal basis, local state or federal, not to make this addition, we'd adhere to it, but the fact is there are not regulations for this, except for Planning and Zoning regulations, which we adhere to."

The Chabad's current home on Village Green Drive has about 3,000 square feet. "And we use it all," he said. "In addition to that, we're using almost all the space on West Street ... we store everything there. That's because we are handicapped. We can't do so many things we want to and what we're supposed to do, because we don't have the space."

He also took issue with the commission's attitude throughout the process. "I don't think there are any rabbis on the commission who can dictate what the size of a synagogue can be," he said. "After the first meeting with the commission, some serious statements and preconceived ideas were made, and our board thought we should do something else ... but I said no, we're going through the process.

Since this began, we've made 43 changes [to the original application]. We went and changed everything they wanted, and still the goal line was constantly changed. You [didn't] have to be Einstein to figure out what was going on here."

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