P&Z Watch: Noise and Traffic Questions Remain Concern for Chabad Application on Lake Ave

Chabad Lubavitch appeared before the P&Z commission Nov 9 with their application to add a preschool to the school use permissions that exist for 270 Lake Ave.

The campus has been home to a series of private schools for a century, most recently Carmel Academy.

Carmel Academy still owns the property, but no longer operates a school there. Chabad is a tenant and contract purchaser.

Existing permissions that date back to the 1980s limit the property’s educational use to grades 1 through 9.

Other permissions limit the number of students and staff who can arrive by car and by bus.

Also operating on the shared 16+ acre campus is the Japanese School who plan to relocate in March 2022.

At the September P&Z meeting neighbors from Rock Ridge Association and their attorney spoke vehemently against the application. They said Chabad had exceeded the approved hours of operation had played loud “club music” outdoors on repeated occasions.  

Since that meeting, the applicant changed their proposal to increase parking from 30 to 50 in response to comments from the town’s traffic consultant, BETA Group.

Chabad’s attorney Tom Heagney said the Japanese School already had 30 faculty who drive to the campus, plus Chabad’s proposed 14.

A letter to P&Z from Mr. Heagney dated Nov 4 said “A synagogue may also be considered in the future.”

That would be subject to the federal RLUIPA law of 2000. RLUIPA, which stands for The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which protects individuals, houses of worship, and other religious institutions from discrimination in zoning and landmarking laws.

But P&Z was only allowed to contemplate Chabad’s existing proposal.

Heagney said a lawsuit was pending from Rock Ridge Association, who have claimed they have a right of first refusal on the property.

“Carmel and Carmel’s title company dispute that claim,” Heagney said. “The case is pending in court.”

“When I look at what is being done here, I also compare it to the other nine private schools that operate here in town. There needs to be an equal application of how both regulations and conditions are applied to all of those, particularly for schools that have a religious focus, such as the Chabad’s school. To limit the use on a campus that has a religious school, where it eliminates such things as special events would be discriminatory and not be permitted.”

– Tom Heagney, attorney for Chabad Lubavitch

Chabad’s growth plan includes adding one grade per year with the goal of establishing a pre-k through grade 8 private school.

In the short, term Chabad might bring another private school onto the campus when the Japanese School leaves.

Rabbi Yossi Deren testified via Zoom saying, “Our goal is to use this site in a way that shows that our town is a place where people feel welcome and have a sense of belonging.”

He said Chabad had received a warm reception from many neighbors.

“Many who take advantage of the beautiful grounds, who we welcome them with open arms as they stroll the walkways or on the fields of the campus,” he said, going on to address concerns about traffic and noise.

He said a traffic study done by Bernie Adler indicated there had not been an adverse impact on traffic.

“And with respect to noise, I want to reiterate our commitment to using the site only as expressly permitted,” he added.

“We are both fully accessible to neighbors at any point in time – whenever there are questions or concerns, and we try to address them in a timely manner,” the Rabbi said, referring to himself and his wife Maryashie.

Attorney for Rock Ridge Association Jackie Kaufman said Chabad’s pre school was currently operating illegally, and referred to Chabad’s “mea culpa special permit application.”

She said Ridge Association had its own set of private restrictions. 

“The only way to get their attention on this is to bring a lawsuit on a right of first refusal,” Kaufman said. “If they are not demonstrating full compliance with your special permit standards, consider all of the requests, the past behavior, the foreseeable consequences of approving this application knowing what’s coming down the pike.

Commissioner Dennis Yeskey asked Mr. Heagney about his remark about an expectation of “equal” treatment to other private schools.

Heagney said the school would expect to hold school-related special events outside the hours of the normal classroom day, just like other private schools, and that there would be sports related activities with buses, especially as the school adds a grade every year.

Commissioner Peter Levy said he was looking forward to a continuation of a school use on this property.

“I’m very comfortable they would do a good job as they always have,” Levy said.

P&Z chair Margarita said there had to be balance between interests of neighbors and a school in a residential neighborhood.

“The trepidation is – I was at an event a few days ago and neighbors adjoining a school basically surrounded me with concerns,” said P&Z chair Margarita Alban. “The job of the commission is always to make sure that a school fits in and that the events are such that the residential uses are not significantly impacted.”

“Now we have to go look into this other school and understand where there is fact and perception,” Alban added. “People can be very sensitive at certain hours of the day and on weekends.”

P&Z director Katie DeLuca asked Mr. Heagney to address a comment from the town’s traffic consultant, BETA Group, about enforcing the equalized access from Lake Ave and Ridgeway.

Heagney said for now pre school traffic would all be via Lake Ave, but as the school continues to grow and add more classes, they would equalize the traffic between the two entrances.

“For the older children, yes it’s appropriate there, and those children would be coming by bus, whereas the preschool children need to be in car seats and need to be transported in cars,” Heagney said.

Attorney Kaufman said her clients remained in opposition of the proposal. She said she wanted to correct something in the record.

“No one in Rock Ridge would dispute the enrichment and the good work Chabad does for the community, she said, adding that a school use had been permitted there both by deed and regulation for decades.

But, she said, “For the better part of this year – since February – these two parties have been in discussion. It’s not just the continued school use for the upper grades, but it’s also about introducing a new use, which is not a school use.”

She said pre school use was different from school use because their licensing procedures are different. Schools with grades from Kindergarten through high school are licensed by the CT Dept of Education while pre schools and daycares are issued by the Office of Early Childhood Development.

Further, Kaufman said, “Pre school students arrive by car. Their parents have to bring them.”

“There is no significant information about carpooling and whether that can be relied on,” she continued, adding, “There is no way to enforce that.”

She said licensing for a pre school 18 months through 4 years old requires a higher student-to-teacher ratio.

“The younger the child, the more number of staff need to be in attendance,” she said. “Also, daycare days are longer and staff come and go in shifts that adds to traffic.”

Maryashie Deren confirmed the preschool would be for children age 18 months to 4-years old.

Kaufman said since February, the Rock Ridge Association had reached out to Chabad asking for more information and communication.

“They were met with resistance each time,” Kaufman said. “It was a series of phone calls and over a moth to get everyone on the phone together. It was very frustrating.”

“During that first call it was articulated, that, ‘We can be here. This right of first refusal doesn’t really exist. We’re not supportive of even looking into it.’ And also, ‘Yes, we will file an application for a pre school. That was in March, but it wasn’t until staff compelled them to do it in July that they actually did it. And that they were protected because of the religious component to the educational use. And other things in the master plan were protected and they would get everything they wanted.”

As for the private conditions as part of the 100-year-old Rock Ridge Association, Kaufman said. “The only way to get their attention on this is to bring a lawsuit on a right of first refusal, but also to private conditions. Some of those conditions overlap with your zoning conditions.”

Kaufman continued to question Chabad’s master plan.

“It’s by no means fully vetted, but it introduces uses they have and were not properly permitted, that they want to potentially continue that could have a long term impact and represent an incremental creep of the larger institution that want to be built here.”

“The concern that approving uses piecemeal is that an applicant will try to maximize these educational or other special permit uses, provided that it actually comes to you and ask for them, because they made it clear to us that they don’t think they need to ask for many of these,” Kaufman said. “And then, after maximizing those, will return with additional uses that they believe will be protected by RLUIPA. This is about intensity of use, not about the type of use.”

She said RLUIPA did not provide a blanket exemption from zoning laws, and that the applicant would still have to come to the commission to demonstrate that special permit criteria are met.

“It just means the use itself can’t be discriminated against,” she said, going on to mention a Supreme Court decision out of Newtown, Camobdian Buddhist Society of CT vs planning and zoning of Newtown, in which a special exception for a religious use was denied by the planning and zoning commission and upheld by the Supreme Court.

“It also found that the commission properly determined that the level of activity would substantially impair property values, and that proposed septic and water supply systems would create health risks,” Kaufman said, adding that the sewage issue was important because there was an illegal sewer connection at 270 Lake Ave. “Right now you have a letter from DPW Sewer Dept that acknowledges there are deficiencies in the sewer connections and plans that need to be addressed. That just has to do with the school component.”

She said as the school grows and added grades, there would be an intensification of use, and that there were already unpermitted uses on the property that weren’t necessarily consistent with either a school or pre school.

“They are consistent with a religious community center, which the Chabad is,” she added referring to complaints of loud amplified outdoor noises.

Kaufman said the complaints were not about the content of the noise, but rather the noise levels themselves and that there was a log of Greenwich Police noise complaints and responses.

“Certainly Chabad is aware of when there have been noise infractions and when they’ve risen to a level that would require someone to complain to police. These activities continue despite the conditions and in spite of the conditions. They are here before you now. This is a time you’d think one would be on their best behavior. And these experiences continue to occur.”

The Rabbi’s wife Maryashie said the pandemic pushed school activities outdoors.

“The noise, that was due to the fact we’re in a pandemic and there was a lot of activity outside,” she said. “There was not one other summer when there was a complaint about noise . We were cognizant to keep it lower, and we were hoping the neighbors would understand.”

Alban said the commission could not consider Chabad’s camp use that had begun before the school use in Sept 2020 or possible future application for a synagogue.

She said only the change to the original conditions of approval was before the commission.

During public comment 40 year Rock Ridge resident John Cooper said the association was 100 years old and was given taxing rights in 1925 by an act of the state.

“In 1883, Nathaniel Witherell divided this property – the old Zaccheus Mead farm – and he put covenants and stipulations on every new property. Existing houses were grandfathered, and there were only three. First thing my wife and I learned when we bought our house was we could not put up anything in the front of our house. Rock Ridge was meant to be an open, parklike community”

Cooper said just once was that waived, and it was for tennis player Ivan Lendl to fence his property for his five attack German Shepherds. “The day he moved, the fence came down,” he said.

“Our understanding is there are bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs, and there will be other religious ceremonies, and this and that. Where does it end?” he asked.

Vlada Epstein said she and husband moved from New York City’s Upper West Side in May partly because of the Chabad community. “My daughter has been attending the camp and preschool. She loves it and we love the community. Maryashie has been so welcoming. That’s part of the reason why we have stayed in Greenwich and not moved back to Manahattan.”

Madison Evans supported the Chabad and drops off and picks up his daughter from school.

“I have not experienced any negative consequences with traffic or noise,” he said.

Denise Brodie said her children moved from NY and attended Chabad’s school.

“We’re so happy and thrilled to be part of this wonderful community” she said adding that she works in Chabad and sees the Jewish community in Greenwich growing. “It’s growing because they have great communities like Chabad of Greenwich who can give a great education. Both Rabbi Deren and his wife Maryashie are amazing people.”

Ms Brodiesaid in terms of noise and traffic, she didn’t see an issue.

Michel Guite from 47 Glenville Rd, who is part of Rock Ridge Association, said he wasn’t aware of a vote the association took on the topic of Chabad.

“I fear some of the opposition you’re hearing is from a smaller group who don’t represent the full diversity of who we are,” he said.

Mr. Guite said he lived next door to Eagle Hill School, which had a controversial start.

“Traffic has gotten bigger and bigger over time, but what’s beautiful is the open school campus is almost like having our own park. We can walk there, take our dogs there, play soccer there when it’s not being use for other purposes,” he said.

Vicki Morton who lives across the street from the Lake Ave entrance to campus commented on the increased request for 50 cars instead of 30 cars. She was concerned about traffic from staff for two schools and students age 18 months to 4 years being dropped off in private vehicles.

Noting Chabad would possibly invite another private school onto campus to replace the Japanese School when they leave next March, she said there were already more than 50 cards for faculty on campus.

“And they don’t want a cap on the number of vehicles for children age 18 months to 4 years old,” she said, going on to question what enforcement there would be. 

Angelique Bell, officer of Rock Ridge Association, said Mr. Guite had not been in attendance of the association meetings for the past two years and therefore wouldn’t know about a vote.

“The board voted unanimously to move ahead with that lawsuit, if that’s what he’s referring to,” she said.

Ms Bell said the campus had been home to a religious school for 15 years and had a long history of diversity. She said Carmel Academy was a Hebrew school, and there had previously been a Christian Science day school and a boarding school for girls.

“That Rock Rige campus has a long history of diversity and we’re proud of it. Any suggestion otherwise is not just misleading and hurtful. It’s intended to intimidate and distract from the real issue at hand for this neighborhood which is this is a proposal for a community center in disguise,” Bell said.

“The daycare is just the first step in a plan to have the school turn into a 24/7 operation in the middle of a residential neighborhood,” she added.

“According to news reports, they’re also looking for a teen center, a senior center, religious services, weekend celebrations and pied-à-terres – basically a 24/7 day a week operation in a residential neighborhood,” Bell continued. “Maybe the town will have conditions for this commercial operation. The applicant has a track record of not respecting their neighbors or the conditions or the ordinances.”

“Why don’t they follow the rules?” she asked. “Because P&Z lets them get away with their bad behavior. There is zero enforcement. It is easy to make empty promises when you know there aren’t any consequences.”

Kaufman said a petition with over 200 signatures was submitted to P&Z to ask that Chabad’s pre school on Lincoln Ave continue.

“Having a community center in the middle of our residential neighborhood will drastically change the nature of life on lower Lake Avenue,” Bell said.

Arthur Bass said he lived adjacent to 270 Lake Ave and that this summer on numerous days, Chabad’s amplified electronic sound that was, “so loud I could clearly hear it inside my house with the windows shut and the air conditioning on.”

“My concern is the applicant has shown no regard for the rules and regulations, as well as no concern they are making these disturbances in a residential community of neighbors,” he said.

“I am very concerned the applicant has behaved this way during the application process when one would think they’d be on their best behavior, which leads me to doubt they will adhere to any rules or conditions laid out,” Mr. Bass said.

David Chass disagreed. He said Chabad was being held to a different standard.

He said there were backups of traffic at Parkway School and at Stanwich School.

“I personally have been stuck on Lower Cross Road trying to get into Parkway in the morning. It seems we’re looking at Chabad at a different standard.”

Ms Alban said that was not true.

“We are trying to make sure that we treat it the same, and they are here before us asking us to have previous conditions reduced or revised.”

Alban said the conditions run with a property.

“I’m very sensitive to that, but on the other hand, we have to make sure that non residential uses blend in harmoniously to residential neighborhoods. It is always an uphill battle.”

Mr. Chass said what he meant was more a reference to community members speaking in opposition to the application.   

He said previous schools at the location were at least four times the size of what Chabad is proposing.

“There seems to be this idea of wanting a master plan because of what might happen in the future,” Chass said. “It doesn’t seem to me that Chabad is asking for a blanket ruling on the next 25 years on what they’re able to do. They’re coming in with a very specific application and that’s all that should be considered.”

Ms Alban replied, “You are correct, but in all fairness we have asked Greenwich High School to do the same thing. We do ask people to give us their master plan.”

Kaufman said the master plan referred to educational and religious uses including High Holy days events, religious ceremonies for bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, which she said were not included in school use, even though it is a religious school.

Mr. Heagney replied that a special permit standard that would apply was “preserve land structures or features with special historic or architectural merit.”

“My client wants to continue to use this as a private school as it has been used for over 100 years, with a building for worship on it,” Heagney said.

Ms Alban said the New England pattern of development is for schools and churches to be in residential neighborhoods.

But, she said, “There are issues with the intensity of the use in a school….We have to treat everybody equitably, but be conscientious about the residents.”

“Everywhere you approve this use, you have to manage it very carefully,” Alban said.

Heagney said there were a number of hearings with P&Z and ZBA as part of the operation of the camp in the summer because, he said, “Every time we brought the pool in, we had to have a hearing and it afforded the neighborhood a chance to speak.”

Heagney asked if the applicant’s traffic consultant could share his report.   

Ms Alban said she didn’t want to discuss Adler’s traffic report but wished instead for the application to remain open.

“I would like to only address the traffic and vehicles next time,” she said.

“Please do confer with the neighbors,” she said. “Just be conscious that some of the stuff that’s working for you may be violating conditions … that just gets people frightened about what can happen in the future. It is your reputation that you are establishing.”

Rabbi Deren said his goal was to be cognizant and sensitive to the neighbors.

“We are in a unique situation because we are a tenant and there is a landlord who is the neighbor,” he said, adding that when Chabad becomes the property owner, communication would be much easier and more direct.

Deren said a three-way relationship with tenant, landlord and neighbor was a challenge.

Ms Alban asked the applicants to reach out to neighbors.

“We hope people know we care about this town,” Rabbi Deren said. “We are committed to being part of the town’s fabric.”

After the P&Z meeting, Rabbi Deren submitted the following statement:

We are grateful for the Planning and Zoning Commission’s time and attention and their review of our application to continue running our preschool in a manner that benefits the children, their families, and the entire community. We are disappointed that certain local residents have chosen to oppose our application.

While we appreciate the concerns related to noise, it is our understanding that they stem primarily from isolated incidents last summer when COVID-related health and safety concerns required our summer camp to move certain activities outdoors. During those events, we tried to minimize noise levels and lowered volumes appropriately whenever it was requested.

All we are requesting today is to be able to continue using the site for our preschool. If and when we seek to expand our use of the property, we will be transparent with local residents and make an appropriate application to the Zoning Commission. We recognize that any future applications will be judged in part by how we use the property for the preschool and are confident that the site will take shape in a manner that addresses concerns of our neighbors and enhances the entire Greenwich community.