After more than a century as a restaurant — and with parts of the building dating back over 200 years, to its days as a stagecoach stop — the former 3 Bears will turn into a Chabad Lubavitch synagogue.
A January 23 Norwalk Hour story said that the 9,180-square foot property, on 2.73 acres at the corner of Wilton Road and Newtown Turnpike, was “poised to change hands and become the new home of Chabad Lubavitch of Westport.”
The Three Bears was a famed restaurant/inn — with 6 fireplaces — from 1900 until February 2009. It reopened for about 5 seconds as Tiburon restaurant, but the property was soon abandoned. Weeds sprouted on the once-stately site.
According to the Hour, John Zervos of DVB Commercial Realty said that Chabad — an Orthodox sect based in Brooklyn, and by some estimates the largest Jewish organization in the world — was “not planning on changing the outside, and the inside works really well for them with the big open spaces of the dining rooms.”
The Hour paraphrased Zervos as saying that while the group had already moved their offices into the new space, they had not yet applied for permits with town officials “to use the space as a religious institution in order to officially close the deal.” (They appear to be leasing, not buying, the building.)
The story noted that Westport’s Planning and Zoning Department received a complaint on January 4 from a neighbor “regarding activity taking place at the former restaurant.” A January 11 inspection revealed work being done on the premises without permits.
A letter sent January 13 cited violations of zoning regulations, said P&Z director Laurence Bradley. Chabad’s attorney requested a 30-day abeyance for more time to submit paperwork. It was granted, giving the group until February 23 to file its application.
Bradley noted, “they have been working and doing things without a permit. It’s been a restaurant since probably before there was zoning, so if they want it to become a synagogue, they will have to go through an extensive review and public hearings.”
Chabad attorney Ken Gruder told the Hour that the space will be used for an outreach group that includes prayer services, educational programs and religious discussions.
“It’s not a synagogue in the traditional sense, it’s so much more,” Gruder added.
But the story does not end there, with applications simply pending.
Yesterday afternoon, I received an email from a longtime Westporter. Attached was a letter the resident sent a day earlier to Bradley.
It said: “Without proper permits for use of the premises as an office or house of worship, the group appears to already be working in the building, often at night, although the nature of their activities are unclear.” Apparently, there are 6 to 10 cars there each night.
The resident added that an “extremely bright outdoor security light in the parking area” was infringing on neighbors.
The writer expressed concern about traffic, parking and wetland impacts, and noted that the building — currently enjoying a “pre-existing approval for non-conforming use as a restaurant in a residential area” — would need a new P&Z approval process for any change of use.
One more concern: exterior alterations to historic building.
In the email to me, the resident added more information: Several years ago Chabad was embroiled in a lawsuit in Litchfield, over proposed renovations that would turn a Victorian house in the town’s 1st synagogue. At one point, according to the Register-Citizen newspaper, Chabad filed suit against the town in federal court, alleging anti-Hasidic prejudice.
Right now, Chabad occupies a house on Kings Highway North that faces the medical complex.
Will they apply for permits by February 23? Will there be hearings — and if so, how contentious will they be?
Will Chabad move a mile or so up Wilton Road? Will the site of what was once Westport’s oldest restaurant become our town’s newest synagogue-or-something-like-it?
And why — despite a story last month in a Norwalk paper — is no one talking about this in Westport?