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School, Synagogue at Odds over Development

Deal between The Stanwich School, Greenwich Reform Synagogue may collapse; synagogue exploring building condos and a house of worship on Stanwich Road property.

A complex land deal between the private Stanwich School and Greenwich Reform Synagogue that would have allowed the school to buy land from Greenwich Reform Synagogue so it can proceed with a $100 million expansion project, apparently has hit a stumbling block.

While the school may proceed with its plans to build a permanent campus on the 257 Stanwich Rd. property, the synagogue is exploring its options including building a condominium complex with affordable housing for town employees, and new house of worship.

The deal would have had the 150-family member synagogue selling its 11 acres to the school. The school wanted to build its campus so it could accommodate about 750 students in grades K through 12, while the synagogue would build a new, permanent house of worship. The synagogue was founded in 1976 and has held services and classes in local churches until it moved into the former Greenwich Catholic School campus at 257 Stanwich Rd., adjacent to St. Agnes Church.

Stanwich was founded in 1998 and rented classroom space from the synagogue, continuing to add a grade each year, as students progressed. In 2003, the two entities began the long process of planning a partnered campus where the school would build its facilities and the synagogue, its house of worship. The school plan faced continued neighborhood opposition before it was approved by the town Planning and Zoning Commission in 2009, then a lawsuit filed by neighbors which was withdrawn about a year ago. This past summer, the school broke ground for an athletic field.

According to Sandy Soule, the synagogue's past congregational president, "Basically, we feel we’ve waited a really long time to build a synagogue. All of 2011 was going by and nothing was happening. ... We started talking with them ... but it was difficult in getting things resolved." Soule added, "We want to ensure the growth and prosperity of our congregation and that's difficult to do in the middle of a construction site….it's not a particularly attractive site," Soule added.

Soule also said, "We’re just trying to do what’s best for our congregation … it has been a difficult situation for everyone." The synagogue has a lease agreement allowing Stanwich to remain at the campus through the 2013-14 school year, which could be extended, depending upon development plans, Soule said.

According to a copy of an Oct. 9 e-mail to school parents from W. Gregory Drennan, president of the Stanwich Board of Trustees, obtained by Greenwich Patch, "This weekend, the leadership of Greenwich Reform Synagogue informed their congregation that they have created an alternative to selling their property to The Stanwich School."

Soule said that the decision to proceed with the condominium proposal - the number of units have not been determined - was announced at Yom Kippur services on Friday.

School Headmistress Patricia Young told Patch Tuesday, "At this point I think everything is pretty much contained in the letter you have ... I'm not going to comment beyond that."

Here is the e-mail sent to parents this past weekend by school trustees chairman W. Greg Drennen.

"This weekend, the leadership of Greenwich Reform Synagogue informed their congregation that they have created an alternative to selling their property to The Stanwich School. GRS believes that the alternative, which we heard involves the development of affordable housing on their property, will result in proceeds to them that they believe are both higher than the purchase price we agreed to in our original Letter of Intent and the increased purchase price your Board presented to them just this  past week in light of this development.

"Despite our strategic interest in the GRS property, the revised price they seek from us, as well as the terms, is unacceptable to our Board...and we believe they would be unacceptable to our community. For now, we will continue to lease for several more years the current  space we rent from GRS for our Primary and Intermediate Houses without interruption.

"We are deeply disappointed by GRS' board's decision and their  actions particularly in light of the fact that we now have all our approvals  that we pursued jointly with GRS over the years. You can be sure that we will  continue to carefully monitor any developments with respect to how GRS proceeds  to protect our own interests, including re-starting constructive negotiations  should that be a viable path for us.

"In the meantime, a Special Committee of the Board will explore all alternatives on the 25+ acres of property we own on Stanwich Road. The Special Committee will also continue to examine options for our leased facility at Stanwich East with regard to the growth of our Junior House and Senior House.

"Finally, you should know that Stanwich is financially sound; our endowment remains safely invested in short-term U.S. Treasury securities and is therefore safe from recent market volatility. Once we have additional details about GRS' plans, we will immediately schedule a Town Hall meeting for Stanwich parents to discuss this matter as well as a full range of options for Stanwich going forward."

Soule added, "The take-away points - all we’re looking for is opportunity to build our own synagogue as we have for 2003 … to work with them or find something else and work out something else, move along with our goals … "

Haden Listerbroom October 19, 2011 at 01:29 PM
The Greenwich Reform Synagogue and Stanwich School agreed more than five years ago on deal that would allow Stanwich school to build a campus and the synagogue to build a new house of worship by sharing the property on Stanwich Road (GRS owns 11 acres and Stanwich owns 26 acres). The deal included a $10 million cash payment and many other significant benefits for GRS. After the school got its final town approvals, completed litigation and appeals with an angry neighbor, raised much more than $10 million, and finally started construction, GRS reneged on the deal. The vague condo proposal appears to be a ruse to try and extract more cash from the school. "Affordable housing" is useful for these purposes in CT because it is not subject to local zoning regulations. This type of negotiation strategy may have a place in the business community but in the context of an agreement between two non profits that serve the Greenwich community, it is appalling. The school after lengthy delays was anxious to get underway building its new campus. GRS slowed the negotiation of the final binding contract with changing demands then AFTER CONSTRUCTION STARTED IT RENEGED on the deal with a vague affordable housing condo plan. Affordable housing on $1 million an acre land? Greenwich residents should take note that the President of GRS, Bill Grad, is currently running for tax collector. I would not want any public official who was untrustworthy or duplicitous. Vote for anyone else.
dd October 19, 2011 at 02:55 PM
Does anyone know GRS's side of the story? It does seem like a bluff tactic to say they want to build affordable housing.
Haden Listerbroom October 19, 2011 at 04:54 PM
Me too. Bill Grad, are you out there?
Sandy Soule October 21, 2011 at 12:45 PM
Mr. Listerbroom is incorrect in stating that there was a 'deal' and that GRS backed out of the deal after town approvals, completed litigation, and the start of construction. While there was a non-binding letter of intent (LOI) between GRS and Stanwich, by its terms, it was never a contract -- there was no deal. In fact, the structure under consideration has changed significantly since the LOI was signed. At no time was there a complete substantive agreement between the parties. When Stanwich wanted to go to the town to receive approvals, GRS said that there was no deal yet, and agreed to cooperate only after noting the risk that a deal might not come to pass. In early 2011 (six months before construction started), GRS specifically told Stanwich that the general structure that had previously been under discussion did not work from GRS' point of view and that significant changes were needed for us to reach agreement. The terms of a deal which would have worked 5 years ago, pre-financial crisis, do not work today. They would not ensure the viability of GRS; they didn't include a definite date for the building of our synagogue; and they wouldn’t get the required GRS board and member approval. Finally, when Stanwich notified GRS that they planned to start construction on the athletic fields, GRS again said that there was no agreement; we were told that they were going to develop property that they owned and that our agreement for this was unnecessary. Sandy Soule
Haden Listerbroom October 21, 2011 at 01:45 PM
I appreciate your thoughtful response even if it differs materially from others' version of the events. At this point, I think it is clear that both parties are better off going their separate ways. The $10 million previously promised to GRS will go along way toward completing the first and largest building on the new Stanwich campus. And GRS can work toward building part of its lasting legacy to the community--a dense affordable condo development on Stanwich Road.
Haden Listerbroom October 21, 2011 at 01:48 PM
I almost forgot. If you look forward to seeing condos on Stanwich Road, show your gratitude by voting for Bill Grad.

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