P&Z Votes on Second Congregational Church Applications

Second Congregational Church’s “Solomon Mead House” at 48 Maple dates back to 1858.  The church council was granted a rezone to Historic Overlay. Photo: Leslie Yager

After months of meetings and public comment, on Tuesday night the Planning and Zoning commission voted on two applications from Second Congregational Church that involved interesting discussion of what is a commercial use on a church property and what is not.

First, the application to rezone 48 Maple Ave to Historic Overlay and allow the church to rent offices on the second floor to for-profit businesses was approved in a vote of 4-1 with the commission chair Margarita Alban voting against.

The second approval was unanimous in favor of a final site plan and special permit that included use of the first floor for Abilis coffee shop, “Coffee for Good,” which will provide vocational training for adults with disabilities.

While Alban had objected to the commercial use being introduced on the second floor for offices under the HO, she said in the site plan/special permit application, the coffee shop was not considered a commercial use but rather a religious use that was an extension of the church mission.

The Historic Overlay approval does mean the building will be preserved in perpetuity.

For months the commission’s reluctance in granting the the Historic Overlay was that it would allow more potential FAR for future development on site.

On Tuesday, Dennis Yeskey noted the Historic District Commission had endorsed the preservation of the building and suggested the commission could request that preservation not be limited to the Mead House, which dates back to 1858, but to the entire site.

Yeskey said the HO would, under section 6-109(d)5, grant the commercial use of the property even though it is in a residential zone, and is within 1,000 ft of another zone.

“It’s a beautiful property….It’s at one of the highest points in downtown Greenwich and the church is a navigational point off the Sound,” he said.

“So I think we’d like to include in the motion the notion that it’s not just a building, but it’s the entire spatial relationship around the building,” he continued, adding that there would be a “close and stringent review of any potential future development on the site.”

“If we grant this HO they’ll have to preserve this building,” Yeskey said. “We would like to move ahead at this point.”

“I disagree,” Alban said, referring to the approval of the commercial use for offices on the second floor.

“My sense is that this is a tipping point. And if we want to protect a residential neighborhood, when they already have commercial uses, I don’t want to increase the level of commercial use.” – Margarita Alban, P&Z chair

Alban pointed out the Abilis coffee shop was not a commercial use, but rather a use protected under Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal law passed in 2000.

“The ability to add rental space for offices crosses a line that I believe should not be crossed,” she added. “I have very strong feelings about this.”

Certainly the adjacent neighbors have disagreed too. At a previous meeting, Doreen Pearson asked, “Is there no limit to the commercialization of a non profit? The church becomes subordinate for all these activities.”

But, other than Ms. Alban the commissioners favored the commercial use.

Nick Macri said, “On that portion of the street there is a mix of commercial and residential. …I don’t think we’ll be changing it drastically.”

“A good example is up the street where a building was saved and you’d never know a difference,” Macri added, referring to 96 Maple where Greenwich Academy received an HO and now operates the Cowan Center, which is the school’s daycare center.

Mr. Levy agreed with Mr. Macri and Mr. Yeskey. “The status is changing from not-for-profit to being able to have a profit making business on site…To my point of view, I don’t mind the idea. It takes some burden off the membership.”

Ms. Goss also agreed.  “I think it would relieve some burden off the church to have office use here.”

Ms. Alban detailed her objections to the commercial use.

“In regard to us easing the burden to the church, I believe that is not within our scope and we should not have considered that matter,” she said. “We are not here to help churches survive.”

“We are not here any more than if a store on Greenwich Ave told us they couldn’t survive unless we did (granted) a zoning incentive. That’s not our job and should not be part of our consideration.

“I recognized there are mixed uses including institutional uses, but there is a strong distinction between non-profit and for-profit and it is our role to protect residential neighborhoods.” – Margarita Alban, P&Z chair  

Mr. Yeskey moved to approved the HO, and change the zone from R20 to R20-HO. The vote was 4-1 with Ms Alban opposed, and Macri, Yeskey, Goss and Levy in favor.

Next, Mr. Yeskey made a motion to approve the Site Plan and Special Permit application to change the space previously occupied by Act II consignment shop to the Abilis “Coffee for Good,” for vocational training of adults with disabilities.

Ms. Alban said she was strongly in favor of the application.

“The Coffee for Good – I admire the purpose,” she said. “From a zoning purpose it’s an extension of the church mission.”

The vote was 5-0 with Alban, Yeskey, Levy, Goss and Macri voting in favor.

And while the vote was unanimous, the commission placed many conditions on the approval, including a required soft opening with no outdoor seating and 23 seats instead of the requested 46 seats, because of concerns about traffic and parking, and proximity to the busy intersection of Maple and Putnam Ave.

The applicant was asked to return to P&Z in three to six months with an update on traffic and parking, at which time the commission will reconsider the operation expanding to 46 seats.

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Another condition was the church significantly beef up the landscaping on the north and west to protect neighbors.

The applicant must provide sufficient parking for Coffee for Good during hours of operation 8:00am to 6:00pm Monday through Friday, and for staff from 7:30am to 7:30pm.

Also, new external lighting to the rear have to meet regulations.

The applicant was also asked to minimize parking in front of the building.

See also:

P&Z Watch: Pre-Application Begins on Potential 80,000 sq ft Greenwich Hospital Smilow Cancer Center