On Tuesday night John Heagney, the attorney representing the Greenwich Reform Synagogue in Cos Cob, again asked the commission to lift conditions placed on the synagogue including a 100 student limit at the day care, a condition that there be no concurrent use of the sanctuary and social hall, as well as a Zoning Board of Appeals condition that there be no concurrent use of the sanctuary and school.
The synagogue, located at 92 Orchard Street, is located in a residential neighborhood near Central Middle School.
The commissioners grew perturbed during discussion with Mr. Heagney who had been asked at a previous meeting to return with documentation that parking and traffic would not be an issue if the conditions were lifted.
Arguing back and forth, Heagney pushed back on repeated attempts from P&Z chair Margarita Alban, commissioner Andy Fox and Town Planner Katie DeLuca to request traffic and parking data.
“There are several instances where you can have simultaneous or concurrent uses in the building where you’re not creating a traffic and parking concern on the site,” Heagney said.
“That’s good that you think that, but we asked you for data,” Ms. Alban said. “The commission asked you to demonstrate that there will be no traffic and parking issues on site.”
“It’s not just the neighborhood, it’s how parents are parking and walking to the building,” she continued. “If you have concurrent use, how will you handle it? We want on-site safety. I said that to you the last time. Give us evidence that supports that it’s safe.”
“If you have a big funeral, what are you going to do?” Mr. Fox asked. “If you have a funeral the same time as the daycare, are you going to cancel daycare because you have a funeral? When daycare is getting out, how do you handle that? We need a management plan. We need a way to hold you accountable for the safety of the site and neighborhood.”
“Why won’t you submit this information,” Town Planner DeLuca asked. “The commission has asked for the information. Can’t you get the traffic engineer who did the information originally provide the commission counts on what’s been done to date, and show it will function correctly on the site?”
“I’m sure you’re well intentioned, and the elders are well intentioned, but you can’t manage on good intent,” Mr. Fox added. “Without any parameters or data, you’re barking up the wrong tree.”
“There is a safety question here,” Ms. Alban repeated. “I turn blue saying it. I was very nice last time. Most of us were here when this application was approved. …You want us to lift the student limit ? Show us what’s going to happen. How many students? What’s the plan and what’s the projection? How will they be dropped off and how will they be walked in?”
Ms. Alban objected to the synagogue having gone ahead and advertised multiple new school programs.
“We see your marketing stuff. We see that you’ve added the new Booming Babies Play Group. We see there is new Terrific Tots and the new Preschool Two’s. This does not meet your current restrictions. …What’s the traffic circulation plan? What’s the safety plan? What are you thinking? How many people?”
“We’re looking for isolated incidents. We’re looking for funerals (at the same time as) religious study. It’s something we’d like the opportunity to have,” Heagney said.
“Mr. Heagney I don’t understand what you’re trying to do here,” Alban said. “We are fully supportive of people’s freedom to worship. We just want to make sure people will be safe. We want to make sure there’s not an issue with expanded uses in the neighborhood or within the congregation.”
“Ms. Alban, I understand,” Heagney said. “We do have our appeals pending in the court. I think that they may not look at the issue the same way.”
“Fine,” Alban said.
“You don’t have the information tonight,” Mrs. DeLuca said. “The full extension has already been granted so your options tonight are withdraw and resubmit, or convert to preliminary.”
“I agree. I want it clear, for the record, because one of the things Mr. Heagney is banking on is that the court won’t agree that we should be making sure the site is safe. I want to lay down for the record that we’re requesting this information in support of the ancillary uses, but to make sure the site is safe and that the circulation works effectively and that the parking works effectively.”
“And you requested the information and the applicant has not provided it,” DeLuca said.
“If you like to convince someone that child safety is not important…” Alban said.
“I would hope that you would not frame it that way, Ms Alban,” Heagney said. “I think that’s a wild mischaracterization!”
“There is a current use of a sanctuary and a daycare that resulted in fatalities,” Alban said. “I am not going to go any further than that. But that is the concern.”
“We would like our religious rights to use the building,” Heagney said.
“Absolutely. We would like to give you that full right to exercise that safely, without any life risk,” Alban said.
“I understand,” Heagney said, suddenly ending the argument. “We’d be happy to withdraw the application.”
If the Greenwich Reform Synagogue takes the Town to court, it will not be the first time.
In 2015 the synagogue settled a lawsuit with the Town after three years of wrangling.
What happened was in July 2014, Greenwich’s Zoning Board of Appeals denied GRS application to build a house of worship.
Following the denial, GRS filed a federal lawsuit alleging that Greenwich violated its civil rights by discriminating against their proposed plan.
They invoked a law known as “RLUIPA,” which stands for the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.
RLUIPA protects religious assemblies and institutions from zoning and historic landmark laws that substantially interfere with the assemblies’ and institutions’ religious exercise.