Unitarian Church Seeks A Lift

When Westport’s Unitarian Church was built 50 years ago, the congregation was largely young.

The church itself still looks fresh and modern. But some of those congregants are still around. And one thing they didn’t think about back in 1965 — accessibility of the sanctuary — now haunts them.

“Some members just can’t come anymore,” says Bobbie Herman. As a trustee of the church, she stands at the door and watches people struggle to get up the hill from the parking lot. A number of steep wide steps separate the lot from the front door.

The steps leading up to the Unitarian Church's front door.

The steps leading up to the Unitarian Church’s front door.

There are side entrances on the lower level. But once inside, it’s a long flight of stairs to the sanctuary.

Members studied options like golf carts. But those are volunteer- and weather-dependent.

The best solution seemed to be a hydraulic lift. It’s 25 square feet, and can hold 3 people.

Planning and Zoning director Larry Bradley gave an initial okay. But he asked for a detailed survey, and discovered that with the placement of the lift and moving handicap spaces, the church would be over its legal coverage.

“Handicap ramps are exempt from coverage,” he explains. “Lifts and parking spaces are not.”

This is the type of lift the church would like to install.

This is the type of lift the church would like to install.

The changes needed to be in compliance — including an additional site plan, wetlands survey and work to the property — would substantially increase the cost of the lift, Herman and church building and grounds committee head Chuck Colletti say.

They’ve raised $30,000 from members so far. They don’t think they could swing the additional “huge” costs.

Colletti and Herman say that 2 acts — Americans with Disabilities, and Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons — compel them to make their church accessible to all.

The Unitarian Church is asking for a Planning & Zoning Commission text amendment, to legalize their lift and amend the definition of “total coverage” to exempt handicapped parking. They’re on the agenda this Thursday (July 16).

“All we want is a 25-square foot platform, to built a lift,” Colletti says.

“This is not about whether I like the project or not,” Bradley says. “My job is to enforce the zoning regulations, as they’re written.”


29 responses to “Unitarian Church Seeks A Lift

  1. Charles Colletti

    Thanks Dan!

  2. Let this be a lesson for all those who still do not believe we are awash in useless regulations that do not help anyone except the bureaucrats who enforce them, and the lawyers and consultants you need to comply with them.

    • Rozanne Gates

      Yes, Peter!

    • Peter and Rozanne, why do you view this as an example of that? Do you think zoning regulations re coverage–i.e. the maximum amount of land that can be used on a given plot for buildings, parking spaces, etc–are “useless?” In other words, do you think landowners should be able to build as much as they want on their own lot?

      From my perspective, it seems like there is a valid regulation on the books and that P & Z has come up with a workable solution–although I wonder whether a variance would possibly make more sense than a text amendment.

      • While it certainly may be useful to have coverage restrictions for a new or substantially renovated structure, making a property owner go through this whole expensive process for a minor alteration is most definitely useless (unless you happen to be a zoning official, land use consultant or real estate attorney, of course.)

    • The real purpose of the “useless regulations” is discussed below. Zoning regulations are an effective means for doling out rewards to your friends and punishment to your enemies, as well as restricting access to housing.


      • Michael, are you saying you are against zoning regulations? Do you think your next-door neighbor should be free to build whatever he or she wants–commercial or residential–without any limitation?

        • Did you read the article? Whatever you think the intent of land use restrictions might be, the reality can be measured. The fact is, land use restrictions benefit some and disadvantage others. I am opposed to most land use restrictions. Do you think you should be able to impose your will on your neighbor?

          • Michael, of course I read the article. And I feel your implicit characterization of the article as describing zoning regulations as “an effective means for doling out rewards to your friends and punishment to your enemies…” is off the mark. And, I have long been familar with the Mt. Laurel decision, having done some pro bono work on a related matter decades ago.

            As far as imposing my will on my neighbors, I think we all agree to abide by certain limitations when we buy in an area governed by zoning regulations. So neither my next-door neighbors not I are allowed to open a nightclub on our property, or a metal scrap business, or construct a 10-story condo high-rise. Is that a bad thing? Aren’t those mutually beneficial limitations we agreed to abide by when we bought our properties? Didn’t we buy our properties in expectation that those limitations would be enforced?

            • Did we buy our houses with expectations with respect to affordable housing? And what are the consequences of land use restriction that limit affordable housing? The retort that ” it’s the law, and we agreed to it”, rings hollow. We all know the express purpose of land use restrictions in towns like Westport; it is just not polite to mention it.

              • Michael, there are many, many purposes to land use/zoning restrictions/regulations; I cited merely several examples above which I find it hard to believe that even you are opposed to.

  3. LuAnn Giunta

    I am one of the disabled who used to attend the Unitarian church. But due to a neurological a condition, I can no longer attend services at the Unitarian church.
    I cannot walk a substantial distance and must use a cane for balance.
    There are certainly more individuals like me who would attend the church if it were made accessible for those with physical limitations. I think whatever can be done; be it relaxing the zoning restrictions for those who’d be using this access would be terrific. And then lallow those who’d likely to use this access provide input before the installation.
    The church says it welcomes “all,” but it needs to make it physically easier for us to feel welcome. Thank you.

  4. John Hartwell

    This seems like a simple thing to fix. Let’s hope P&Z can get this done quickly.

  5. Rozanne Gates

    There is a handicapped accessible ramp that leads right up to the entrance. People drive their cars up and drop off people who need this accessibility.

    • Bobbie Herman

      Unfortunately, it still requires climbing up an incline, which many people cannot do, especially the elderly and those in wheelchairs. The entrance to the lift would be at street level, and bring them up to the upper level, where they can enter the Church.

  6. Beth Berkowitz

    I am confused, about some of this, if there already is a handicap accessible ramp why do they need a lift also? Are there already enough handicap parking spaces near the ramp? Is there an elevator inside the building from the lower level side entrances?

    If someone cannot walk as far as the ramp is then wouldn’t they be in a wheel chair? Wouldn’t they have someone with them that could help them with the incline of the ramp?

    I’m not being insensitive, I’m just not sure I understand. If all of these things are already in place, why do they still need to build this lift? Why does it need additional parking for the lift? Could they just build the lift and take existing handicap parking and move some of them closer to the lift? Will a wheel chair fit inside this lift? Why will it be over the allowed coverage for the property? Could they return some of the regular parking spaces to give back some coverage so it can comply? That is a huge parking lot and there are a lot of parking spaces already. There is also porous asphalt that could be used instead of regular asphalt in order to get a lot less coverage concerns from the town depts. even if they only used the porous asphalt on a portion of the parking lot to save some money it may work.

    Howevrr, if all of these issues have already been addressed with the town and the town still won’t allow it to happen the way the planning and zoning regs are written, then it is time for these regulations to change. No one who wants to attend their church should be inhibited from attending because of a disability. Maybe the town would need to provide transportation for those people who cannot attend if they don’t want to adjust the regulations and then also provide people who will carry these people the distance they cannot walk on their own. That would cost the town a lot more money than changing the regulations to be more reasonable.

    • Bobbie Herman

      There is no elevator inside — there is no room for one, which is why we propose to built the lift (a hydraulic lift, not an elevator) at the exterior of the building. It is exactly 25 square feet, hardly an intrusive use of the coverage. We are not asking to add additional parking. The parking adjacent to the lift would be designated as Handicapped.

      Ms. Berkowitz, if you doubt that people would have difficulty climbing up the steps or maneuvering the handicap ramp, I suggest you come to the Church on a Sunday morning and see for yourself.

      • Beth Berkowitz

        Dear Bobbie,

        I didn’t mean to offend anyone, I just didn’t understand how a handicap ramp wouldn’t be able to be used by people it was made for. That’s all. But if many people have a problem with it, then I hope you can get the lift without much difficulty.

  7. Perhaps if Special Properties II got the construction job, the project could be quickly completed within a few weeks!

    • Exactly right, Ed. The Unitarian Church should just roll like they do over at Partrick; sans permit, put in everything and anything they want, if fact, raise the entire site to the level of the main floor and then, if anyone drops a dime just claim “these things always happen” and basically dare the town to do anything about it.

      On a serious note, this Victor Lundy designed church is likely one of the most architecturally significant (and, in my view, beautiful) buildings in the Town of Westport. I think I recall Victor remarking when he visited some years ago that it was his favorite commission. In any event, I wish the Unitarians the best in resolving their access issue – it sounds like reasonable ask.

  8. How can any rational person argue about making a trip to Church comfortable, enjoyable, meaningful?
    One day, we may all need this Lift.

  9. As is the case in so many situations like this, common sense judgment should be used based on looking at this particular problem. Go look at the site being discussed. The existing ramp is simply not adequate for people who have difficulty walking. As Bobbie said, a car has to drive up a steep driveway and then the person has to maneuver out of the car and up a ramp and walkway. If the pavement is at all slippery, it is very challenging and is a deterrent to members attending services. No one looking at this would question the need for the lift; the issue just gets tangled up because of the coverage of the parking lot which has been in place for many years. Requiring some sort of retro-fit to the entire church campus in order to approve the lift raises the cost of the project to an unaffordable level and therefore does our seniors a great disservice. P&Z, please approve this 25 square feet and do the right thing for our seniors.

  10. Thank you.

  11. I simply invite everyone who has an opinion from afar to visit the site. The pedestrian handicap ramp is at the top of a small driveway on a very steep hill, with a small drop-off place at the top. The driveway is on one side of the hill; you must drive to the top, drop off your passenger, maneuver to turn around, and drive back down the way you came. For all disabled visitors to be dropped off this way is simply unmanageable.

    The Unitarian Church is built into the side of a hill, in the midst of heavily-regulated wetlands property. When it was built in the early 60’s, there were no ADA requirements as there are today. We are proud of the natural beauty of our location, and the iconic architectural design of our building, and wish to preserve it. That’s why this lift was designed to take up as little space as possible — 25 square feet — while respecting the needs of elderly or disabled visitors to arrive at their destination in safety, comfort and dignity. Our church is also used constantly during the week by various Westport community organizations, and allowing this small lift would also benefit them.

  12. Virginia Banerjee

    Really need the lift. The present handicapped entrance is impossible for a person alone. It is even a struggle if there is a second person who can take take the car back down to the parking lot.

  13. Virginia Banerjee

    The present handicap entrance is impossible for a person alone. Who would take the car back down to the parking lot?.

  14. If the issue is overall ground coverage then consider eliminating 1 parking space. If the issue is building coverage then seek a zoning variance. If the ZBA is so far out in left field that it cannot see a “land hardship” to support the need for the lift then it’s time to consider removing some members. Clearly there is an issue with regard to the steepness of the lot.
    Is there some state process you can go through to help with the ADA compliance? Any federal or state organization if the zoning issues cannot be satisfied?

  15. Bobbie Herman

    Last night, the Planning and Zoning Commission approved the Text Amendment that will allow The Unitarian Church to construct its much-need handicap lift. I want to thank Dan for posting this message and for all of you for supporting the application. Hallelujah!!!!!