At Tuesday’s lengthy P&Z meeting the commission discussed an application from Chabad Lubavitch for a permit for a 40 x 40 tent for more than 14 days behind their building at 6 Lincoln.
Currently both Chabad’s building at 75 Mason Street and 6 Lincoln Ave are for sale as a development site and preschool was moved from 6 Lincoln to Lake Avenue.
Off the bat, P&Z chair Margarita Alban asked Chabad’s attorney Tom Heagney about the tent having already been erected earlier in the day.
“I’ve heard from a number of town officials in the last couple of hours,” Heagney said. “There was a miscommunication, a misunderstanding. They jumped the gun and I had spoken to the rabbi and the tent is being removed. If it hasn’t been removed already, it will be gone by tomorrow morning.”
Mr. Heagney explained that earlier in the day Chabad had filed an application for a permit with P&Z staff for a tent for a special event, but it had yet to be processed.
He said the idea was to get the two-week special event permit and then seek a permit for six months.
Chabad plans to hold religious services under the tent on Saturdays, and religious school on Sundays.
“This is being driven by the pandemic,” Heagney explained, noting he was aware that the Governor’s executive emergency powers are set to expire on Feb 15, 2022.
Still, he said, “People attending the services are not comfortable inside. …We all hope it won’t be more than 6 months but we’re looking for protection from the elements for that period of time.”
“You legally run into a problem after 6 months because you’re no longer a temporary structure then,” Alban said. “You can’t go more than six months.”
Mr. Heagney recalled how the rowing club on River Road in Cos cob was approved for a tent while a building was under construction and that it was approved through staff rather than by the commission.
“I knew we were going to regret that,” Alban said. “I was really uncomfortable that we would end up with tents that lingered.”
Heagney said the Chabad pre school was no longer being operated at 6 Lincoln. Currently it is operating until June at 270 Lake Avenue under an agreement with Carmel Academy. Recently, Chabad was the contract purchaser of that property but that fell through. The new buyer of the property is Alan Breed.
Heagney noted that a pre school was allowed under Use Group 4 in the CGB zone and that religious uses are also in Use Group 4.
In fact, he said there were no activities taking place inside the building at 6 Lincoln.
Noting a suggestion made at the previous day’s staff briefing that Chabad hold events in the parking lot at 75 Mason Street, Mr. Heagney said the lot at 6 Lincoln felt more safe and secure.
“It’s more protected and secluded behind the building at Lincoln, whereas it’s very open (at 75 Mason). And there are security concerns,” he said.
Commissioner Peter Lowe asked whether the parking requirement was suspended during a time the building was not in use? “How does that work?” he asked.
“We’d have to condition that (approval for a temporary tent) would be based on the daycare/school use not being ongoing,” Alban said.
Commissioner Nick Macri said his understanding was that as long as the tent was erected, there could be no use of the building for any activity.
The building features classrooms, office space and an apartment.
Ms Alban said it would be a condition that if the preschool resumes at 6 Lincoln, the tent would have to come down.
Mr. Heagney also gave an example of a tent that permitted for an extended period of time at Harvest Time Church on King street when it was under construction in a residential zone. He said the church received a special exception from the Zoning Board of Appeals for a bubble in the parking lot on a temporary basis. The understanding was that they would limit the number of occupants for each service to reflect the reduction in parking.
“We’re coming here saying this is a temporary use and we’re suspending the preschool while this is going on,” Heagney said, adding that while the 4 spaces + 1 ADA space at the back of 6 Lincoln are taken out of use, congregants would use the 17 spaces + 1 ADA space at 75 Mason.
“There are no uses going on at 75 Mason Street on Saturdays or Sundays,” Heagney said.
As for the ADA parking space behind 6 Lincoln, the applicant agreed to make pavement markings in the driveway to relocate that space temporarily.
Ms DeLuca said there had been talk at the Parking Services Dept about extending the hours that Lincoln Ave is limited to residential parking from Monday-Friday from 11:00am-2:00pm to Monday to Friday from 9:00am-5:00pm. There are no restrictions for who parks on Lincoln on weekends.
“Is that going to impact the operation on these two properties,” she asked.
Mr. Heagney said it would not, because the tent was only for weekend use.
Ms Alban said she did not believe approval to switch uses in Use Group 4 was automatic, especially considering that the numbers who attend services and Hebrew school under the tent might be higher than the pre school enrollment.
Mr. Heagney said 25 people would attend Saturday services and 15-20 children, plus 4 staff would be present at Sunday school.
During public comment, Francia Alvarez said she was concerned about safety, recalling the eight years she worked on Mason Street with an office overlooking Chabad. “I’d sit there and watch the children. Parents would bring their children to the outside play area for the pre school and often the kids’ parents weren’t paying attention. There were cars coming and going, and a couple times kids got out of the play area and ended up walking in the street.”
“My experience was somewhat panicked on a number of occasions,” she added.
Marius Olszewski of 18 Lincoln Avenue said that holding religious services in the parking lot was problematic from his point of view as a neighbor.
“Unfortunately what happens is there is a religious service 12 or 14 feet from our property. We wouldn’t like to be disrespectful, by all means. But because of that, we simply cannot use our back yard.”
“There are a lot of people and we can pretty much hear everything that is said. Our gardener cannot come. We instruct service people not to come to our house on Saturday morning because there are services there,” he added.
“Parking is a huge problem on Lincoln Ave and traffic on Lincoln is getting worse and worse over the years. To say that because it is the weekend that traffic is not going to be impacted by activity is simply not true,” Olszewski continued. “Any activity over the weekend at that property is going to impact both the traffic and the parking situation on the street.”
Tiffany Costanzo, who lives next door to Chabad at 14 Lincoln, said she supported the application.
“They’ve been using it for religious services on Saturday and Sunday,” she said. “From our perspective we have not had issues, but when there are issues I’ve been able to go to Maryashie (Deren).”
Commissioner Mr. Macri asked, “They’re already conducting services on the site at 6 (Lincoln)?
“They haven’t done it in a while, but they were doing it during the pandemic, yes,” she said.
“Under a tent?” he asked.
“There sometimes are tents there, yes, Costanzo said. “A smaller tent than is currently up there.”
During discussion, the commissioners explained that if the tent stayed up beyond 6 months it would be considered a permanent structure.
As a result, if the commission were to extend the permit beyond six months, the applicant would have to take down the tent and re-erect it.
The commissioners asked Mr. Heagney if Chabad would take down the tent if the pandemic were to lift before three or four months.
“I’m very hopeful that after six months or less, the Chabad will not need this tent,” Heagney said.
“The risk from the pandemic is all but gone,” said commissioner Peter Levy. “There is no more public emergency, so it’s not about that. It just isn’t official yet.”
Ms DeLuca asked if there might be a time when the building returns to use while the tent is still in use.
Mr. Heagney said that would not happen.
Everyone agreed that the reason the tent was being approved was for concerns about Covid, regardless of whether the Governor’s executive emergency powers expire on Feb 15.
The 40 x 40 ft tent was permitted for 6 Lincoln Ave with the following conditions:
The tent must come down on June 1, reflecting a total of 4 months of use.
At the end of 4 months the applicant shall return to the commission to request a renewal, if needed.
There shall be no weekday use of the tent whatsoever.
The tent shall be for used on Saturdays for religious services with a maximum of 25 people, and Sundays for religious education for 15-20 students and 4 staff.
The Lincoln Ave building shall remain vacant while the tent is in place.
There shall be no amplified music or public address system used in the tent.
That shall be no simultaneous use between 75 Mason and 6 Lincoln.
Chabad shall create a temporary ADA compliant parking space in the existing driveway at 6 Lincoln.