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.
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.
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.”
In June, “06880” reported that the owners of the old post office intended to paint the exterior of their new restaurant — Post 154 — an indeterminate color. It was described as “brown,” “a dark shade” and “a bit purply.”
Some “06880” commenters noted that property owners can pretty much do whatever they please. Many more, however, were appalled at changes to the handsome brick building.
It was a dark moment in town.
Yesterday — in a meeting with town officials including Planning and Zoning director Laurence Bradley, P&Z Commission chair Catherine Walsh and Historic District Commission administrator Carol Leahy — owners Joe and Melissa Kelly, and architect Bruce Beinfield said they will not paint the brick.
The interior is reported to look great.
Now the exterior will, too.
(Click here if your browser does not take you directly to YouTube.)
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.
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 Three Bears, in its heyday. (Postcard/Cardcow.com)
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.
The interior of the Three Bears, also from its glory days. (Postcard/Cardcow.com)
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-Citizennewspaper, 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?
Wading straight into a raging controversy — does Westport have enough banks, or could we use several dozen more? — the Planning & Zoning Commission is ready to act.
A public hearing next Thursday (Sept. 16) will consider a proposed text amendment that would — be still, my heart! — restrict where banks can be located within our borders.
A bank that no human being has ever been spotted entering or exiting.
As trend-setting as Westport is, we may not be leading the pack here. According to P&Z director Laurence Bradley, other towns have recently passed similar measures.
The reason: “Banks have a tendency to detract from the fabric of vibrant commercial areas, as they do not generate a lot of foot traffic and they are not opening evenings and weekends.”
Bradley added that with an average bank-to-household ratio of 1:320, Westport is “substantially ‘over-banked'” when compared to our neighbors.
Wilton has 1 bank for every 508 families. Fairfield — often held up as the image of what “Westport used to be,” and lauded for a vibrant downtown that has zoomed past ours in terms of nightlife, restaurants and general hipness — lags far behind us in bankitude. Folks there make do with 1 bank for every 656 households.
Whatever the P&Z decides, “06880” hopes there’s enough gas left in the tank to tackle an issue far more serious than over-banking:
(Thursday’s meeting is set for 7 p.m. in the Town Hall auditorium. However, the bank text amendment is not the 1st item on the agenda.)
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