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Greenwich congregation gets OK to build synagogue

By Cindy Mindell

COS COB – After 40 years without a permanent home, Greenwich Reform Synagogue (GRS) has cleared the final legal hurdle to constructing a new building in the town’s neighborhood of Cos Cob.

On June 8, Judge Marshall K. Berger of the Hartford District Superior Court approved the “Stipulation of Settlement,” resolving all outstanding lawsuits between the Town of Greenwich and a group of adjacent property owners concerned about the impact of the proposed non-residential project on their residential neighborhood.

The three-year application process has been pocked with lawsuits, both against and by GRS. After the congregation purchased property on Orchard Street in fall 2012, a community-wide debate ensued over the proposed 20,000-square-foot, 100-parking-space design. The congregation then purchased two small adjacent plots, creating a 1.75-acre site.

The neighbors filed lawsuits against the Planning & Zoning Commission and the Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Agency.

In June 2014, when the Greenwich Planning & Zoning Board of Appeals denied GRS the special exemption necessary for final approval, the congregation sued the Town of Greenwich for violating its members’ civil rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

Eventually, architect Mark B. Thompson reduced the design to just over 12,000 square feet, which will accommodate flexible spaces for a sanctuary, social hall, classrooms, offices, and conference room. The site will accommodate 52 cars with overflow parking provided at Greenwich Baptist Church and Central Middle School, both less than a half-mile away. The design must comprise several other stipulations and curfews that mitigate noise, lighting, and environmental impact on the neighborhood, and restrict the number of people using the building at any one time. For example, the social hall is limited in capacity to 138 and cannot be used concurrently with the sanctuary, and the synagogue is not allowed to host a large outdoor event.

Sandy Soule, co-chair of the GRS building committee, says that modifications were made to the original design mainly in order to meet Greenwich Inland Wetlands & Watercourses Agency requirements. In addition to the Town-stipulated water-detention basins on all new construction projects, GRS will install permeable pavers in the parking areas and install plants on part of the synagogue roof. The new structure will be built into an existing rock outcropping (part of which will be blasted), allowing a view of the rock and trees through a glass curtain wall in the sanctuary space. An open-air courtyard behind the sanctuary will accommodate summer religious services and social events.

While Soule says that the classrooms are designed with a preschool in mind, the “Stipulation of Settlement” precludes the congregation from opening a nursery school, daycare center, or summer camp without going through a separate application and approval process with the town.

“Cos Cob residents were never against the building of a synagogue, or indeed, a religious institution of any kind,” says Sarah Darer Littman, a leader of the neighborhood group who filed the lawsuit. (Littman is also a member of the Jewish Ledger Editorial Advisory Board.) “But we have had very real concerns about the blasting of rock ledge, traffic, and increased impervious surface in a residential area that has already been identified by the Town of Greenwich as having ‘major problems with flooding.’ The stipulations required in the settlement give some protection to the neighborhood on these legitimate issues.”

This will be GRS’ first building of its own. Founded in 1976, the congregation spent its first year at Diamond Hill Methodist Church in Cos Cob before moving to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Riverside (Greenwich). In 1992, the congregation purchased an 11.5-acre property from the Diocese of Bridgeport on Stanwich Road, which it sold in 2012 to the adjacent Stanwich School. GRS leases office space from the school, which is also used for some religious services.

The new 2 1/2-story facility will be only the second synagogue building constructed in Greenwich. Temple Sholom, a Conservative congregation, has inhabited 300 East Putnam Avenue since 1990. Greenwich is also home to Chabad of Greenwich, which Littman herself attends, and which is based in a house.

With some 110 member families, GRS hopes to open the new building in time for High Holidays in 2016, a noteworthy milestone with biblical resonance.

“We were founded in 1976 so we say that we’ve been in the desert for 40 years,” Soule says. “We have lost members along the way. But now we’re close to the Promised Land.”

The congregation expects final approval in the next few weeks, pending submission to the town of final construction plans.

CAP: Architect’s rendering of the Greenwich Reform Synagogue building to be constructed in Cos Cob.

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