Greenwich Reform Synagogue's controversial plan to build a synagogue in Cos Cob cleared a major hurdle Tuesday when the Planning & Zoning Commission approved a request for a lot line revision that in effect makes one of the adjoining properties to be developed large enough for the proposed religious center.
The approval allows about .89 acres of the property at 96 Orchard St. to be conveyed to 92 Orchard St., which the church has already acquired for construction of an approximately 20,000 square foot building. An adjoining property at 22 Osee Place will also be acquired to create a combined two acre lot that would include onsite parking.
During the public hearing, which was attended by dozens of neighbors, a majority of whom are opposed to the project, attorney Thomas Heagney, representing Greenwich Reform Synagogue, asked the commission to approve the application as a simple lot line revision, as opposed to a subdivision or re-subdivision.
The opposition had earlier asserted that what the applicant was requesting was in fact a subdivision, a decision which requires more administrative oversight, and not a lot line change. Heagney, however, pointed out that the commission has an established pattern of approving similar applications as simple lot line revisions. He said local zoning regulations define a subdivision as when a lot is divided to create additional lots — not when a lot line is simply adjusted.
"The process you have been following, particularly with regard to the changes in the subdivision regulations, [regarding] two or more lots... is the policy and procedure that you should continue to maintain," Heagney said. "It has worked for you and it has worked for the town, it is appropriate to utilize here, and we would urge you to continue that process."
"We're starting with two lots and we're ending with two lots..." he said.
Mario Coppola, representing neighbors who are opposed to the project, said Heagney's argument "fails to acknowledge an central issue in this case which is whether the proposed change of lot lines constitutes a division of land within the meaning of the definition of subdivision."
"The Greenwich definition of subdivision only differs from the statutory definition with regard to how many times land needs to be divided in order to constitute a subdivision," Coppola said. "That key difference between the Greenwich and statutory definitions is not an issue in this application — nor was that an issue in the [case law] which has been cited extensively in these proceedings."
Coppola argued that one of the precedents Heagney referred to in his brief — Goodridge vs ZBA — pertained to a very small boundary change (involving 0.005 acres) and only involved changing about 3% of the boundary line.
"In this case what's being proposed is the conveyance of about .89 acres from one lot to another and to drastically change a significant portion of the boundary line between the two lots," he said, adding that in "the Goodridge case they threw out the argument that it was a subdivision, based on the fact that the conveyance of land was so small."
"It would be an improper to conclude that the significant changes proposed in this application qualifies an exception to the subdivision requirement for lot line adjustment as set forth on the Goodridge case," Coppola argued. "To do so... would be to make a mockery of subdivision law."
Coppola also found fault with Heagney's assertion that the town "must implicitly approve lot line revisions" when they meet the regulations.
"This commission is not obligated to approve a lot line revision just because it complies with the regulations — if that was true we wouldn't have this procedure and the commission wouldn't have to vote on the application, it would be administratively approved," Coppola said.
Coppola also criticized Heagney for raising the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) in the application when the commission had already said all testimony was to be limited only to the application at hand, i.e. the lot line change, and not proposed uses for the property. The federal Act allows religious organizations to sidestep certain zoning regulations when proposing to build new facilities.
"RLIUPA... is federal legislation which doesn't apply in this application because the applicant is not proposing any religious use whatsoever for the property," Coppola said, pointing out that no site plan has yet been submitted for the property. "In fact the applicant is not proposing any use on the property — they are merely proposing to change the boundary lines on two lots."
Sarah Littman, of Valleywood Road, leader of the opposition, said Greenwich Reform Synagogue "is trying to have it both ways."
"The commission is telling us that we cannot look forward, in terms of the application, and yet the applicant's attorney is trying to bring up RLIUPA, which is based on a religious use, and as our attorney rightfully pointed out, there is no intended use," Littman said. "I think it's wrong that they they are trying to intimidate the commission by pulling the RLIUPA card... "
Carl Anderson, of 130 Hendrie Ave., Riverside, said he was concerned that if the commission approved the application, it would set a precedent that could be negative for the town later on. He showed the commission photos of a 10,000 square foot Georgian colonial that he and his partner built in late 1990s. He said he was showing the photos to give the commissioners a perspective on "the size of the house, in relation to the other houses in the neighborhood."
"How is this structure — at twice the size of this house — going to look in that neighborhood, that's what I want you to ask yourself," Anderson said. "I don't think it's proper — it just does not belong in that location. A structure like that belongs on the Post Road or in a commercial area... and what I'm scared about is if this passes, it's going to set a precedent for other locations..."
Commissioner Richard Maitland said the application before the commission "is a narrow one... it's not a site plan... currently it consists of two lots, one conforming, the other a non-conforming lot. After the property line realignments, we still have two lots, one conforming, the other less nonconforming."
"This is not by definition a re-subdivision because both of these lots were created before the subdivision regulations were adopted," Maitland said, refering to revised regulations that were adopted in 2005. "Therefore I make a motion that what is before us is neither a subdivision nor a re-subdivision."
With that, the commissioners voted unanimously to approve the lot line revision. Now it is up to Greenwich Reform Synagogue to develop and submit plans for how it intends to use the property.
The 150-family congregation has been holding services at the First Congregational Church of Old Greenwich since selling its Stanwich Road campus last year.
On Wednesday, Coppola confirmed that he would be filing an appeal of the commission's decision in state Superior Court.