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Norwalk Zoners approve Sikhs’ plan for gurudwara on Richards Avenue

Avneet Singh speaks in favor of the Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji Foundation’s application to build a religious center at 283 Richards Ave., during Thursday’s Zoning Commission meeting.

A rendering of the gurudwara proposed for 283 Richards Ave. by Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji Foundation. (Contributed)

NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk Zoning Commission members defied a community outcry Thursday evening to greenlight a Sikh religious center proposed for Richards Avenue, on a five to one vote.

Citizens issued passionate commentary for more than three hours, in addition to feedback the Commission received at part one of the public hearing in December. Opponents were “just throwing everything, including the kitchen sink, at this in hopes that something will stick,” Zoning Commission Chairman Lou Schulman said.

Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji Foundation’s application meets the requirements for a special permit and deciding to approve it “is not difficult,” Schulman said. “What is difficult was listening to as many hours as we did of comments from the public, which included so much misinformation … We can’t make our decisions, as we learned at our last meeting, based on the perceived fears of people. We have to make decisions on the basis of the law and the regulations and what is best for the city of Norwalk.”

Commissioner Richard Roina voted against the religious center without commenting.

 

Public hearing, part II

More than 20 neighbors spoke against the application, citing traffic concerns, alleging that the parking will be inadequate, that their property values will go down and that the proposed building is too big for the 1-acre lot at 283 Richards Ave., closely neighboring three existing religious centers.

“I am happy to live in this diverse neighborhood. The harmony and beauty of this part of West Norwalk is that it is welcoming to all religions,” Sloane Shickler said. But, “Let’s remember that this is an asphalt parking lot jammed between two existing residential homes. The size of the applicant’s 18,000-square foot proposed house of worship on a 1-acre lot is grossly inconsistent with the other houses of worship nearby, and the triple A residential zone.”

She continued, “Jammed between homes it will be open 24/7. Virtually the entire outdoor area will be an asphalt parking lot without open space for use. The natural trees will be torn down, exposing neighboring houses, there will be parking fumes, food smells from the community kitchen and artificial lighting for the parking.”

“If this is the building they want, this is the wrong property,” Jon Seibert said. “If this is the property they want to build on, then this is the wrong building.”

“It’s not about the Sikh people. I think they’re wonderful people. I think we all agree on that front. It’s not personal,” Mergim Elezi said. “It’s about the size. It’s about the construction…. I agree with a lot of what people have said before. My opposition to it is strong because of the monstrosity of size. As simple as that.”

Michael Killingsworth had cars on his mind.

“The traffic study for this project is highly compromised and misleading because it was conducted in the middle of a pandemic,” Killingsworth said. “… Norwalk Community College, for example, was only providing virtual learning. So obviously there was no traffic, and the current three houses of worship had lighter attendance than pre pandemic.”

Truman Curtis criticized the plan to provide 56 parking spaces for a gurudwara that would seat 240 people, and added, “I’ve been here for 22 years, the Lowe’s moved in, Home Depot’s moved in and people are gravitating to this area. But the people that want this aren’t living here.”

“There’s a there’s a motto in medicine, ‘first, do no harm. So how would that apply to this case?” Bill Wrenn said. “… the Sikh community, I think would probably benefit by finding a better location for their temple.

Randall Weeks said he’d worked with a property appraiser and been told to expect “a decline in 10 to 15% of my property value.”

Others presented the flip side of the coin.

Sarbjeet Rayat said he lives on Richards Avenue and understands traffic is a valid concern.

“I also happen to have a good handle on how the gurudwara-related traffic typically flows during the week,” he said. “I agree with the findings from the professional traffic studies that show that the added traffic on Friday evenings and Sunday afternoons is not a cause for concern.”

He said, “I’m not kidding, this letter is on record with the Zoning Commission, that says having this building here will make it look like Abu Dhabi… I’m sure some of the callous ignorant and insensitive remarks are not representative of the larger community of West Norwalk. And once the Gurdwara is built, think about it for a second: how many other towns can boast of having a synagogue, a church and a gurudwara right next to each other? It’s going to be the jewel of the Norwalk city.”

Avneet Singh offered a detailed presentation in favor of the gurudwara.

“The fact of the matter is, this is a two story application for a 12,000 square feet structure with a 6,000 square feet basement for a community kitchen. It’s not a commercial kitchen. It’s a community kitchen that serves not only members of the Sikh community on Sunday, but also organizations like open door shelter, and other homeless shelters,” he said.

Satjeet Kaur said she is a Norwalk resident and executive director for the Sikh Coalition.

“I do want to just call out some of the coded bias that has been seen in some of the comments that I have read through from the last meeting,” she said. “…Statements like ‘the design is going to mimic Abu Dhabi skyline’ and the saying is ‘out of character of the neighborhood,’ or that property values will simply decline because of the architectural structures, that’s problematic.”

She continued, “Saying that the smell of food prepared at the proposed gurudwara will permeate the neighborhood, that is also problematic. And we wouldn’t make these comments if we were talking about the incredibly beautiful churches, synagogues and other houses of worship in Norwalk. ‘Standing up for taxpaying Norwalk residents,’ that implies that Sikhs are outsiders.”

It’s a “big misunderstanding” that the gurudwara will be open 24/7, one supporter said, explain that the congregation won’t attend the ceremonial opening of scripture in the early morning and the evening. “During the day, about five to 10 people may visit at random times for few minutes to 10 minutes 10 minutes to offer individual prayers.”

“I can guarantee you, 240 people are not going to prayers at 5 a.m.,” Kaur said. “That’s not how we function. It’s about making sure that we maintain services throughout the day, and that certain prayers are met.”

Jeff Danziger replied that “there might be a handful of people slamming the doors and you know, getting in and out of their cars and lights and … all that all that noise”

“Despite some attempts by a few to frame it as a case of religious intolerance, whether in code or not in code, I really don’t think that there’s any of that that’s involved,” Gregory Staples said. “I think it’s really about a large group of impacted neighbors asking almost unanimously for denial of a very high-density development.”

 

Rebuttal

Attorney Liz Suchy, representing the Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji Foundation, said the traffic concerns are unfounded. Neil Olinsky, a traffic engineer, said the gurudwara would be “complementary” to other uses as “it will only add any notable traffic on Sundays during the middle of the day is are generally speaking a pretty low roadway traffic volume all around.”

The traffic study was done in June, when pandemic effects were diminished, and the Connecticut Department of Transportation didn’t object, he said.

Suchy said a records search showed no damage to local property values.

“A quick look at some sales in 2021, that took place less than one mile from the subject property, revealed that more than 68% of them sold for more than the asking price,” Suchy said. “A quick look at sales in 2021, that were between a mile and less than a mile and a half from the property, approximately 72% of them sold for more than the asking price. And these are all with houses of worship, generally in the neighborhood.”

 

 Voting to approve

Zoning Commissioner Galen Wells noted she lives in close proximity to the proposed gurudwara. Google maps shows she’s about 1.3 miles away.

Yes, the traffic is difficult there during rush hour but the Sikh religious center is “only going to create traffic and Friday nights and Sunday afternoons,” she said. “I know from my own experience, it’s just no traffic during those times.”

Commissioner Frank Mancini said he grew up next to a church his family didn’t attend. “I always thought it brought something special to the neighborhood. And it’s an identical situation where they had very little parking.”

“We’ve read a lot of letters. We’ve reviewed the materials. And if you look at it really carefully, this is actually fairly simple and straightforward,” Schulman said.

Many of the speakers were probably unintentionally misrepresenting information, he said. But, “At a time when there seem to be alternate truths floating around our country, causing, you know, enormous damage, it’s important to keep that in mind and to take the appropriate action. Even with a large number of people disagreeing.”

“I know a lot of the people who spoke against the project, and they’re good people,” Wells said. “I don’t think they’re bigots, or they’re narrow minded, or they’re anything like that. But I think sometimes they were mistaken about what this was going to be. And I think there’ll be pleasantly surprised. A lot of these fears just will not come to fruition.”

21 comments

DryAsABone January 7, 2022 at 6:21 am

Sat Shri Akaal!!
Ignore the small minded xenophobes.
Norwalk will be a better place when it is built and used.
Acha Kismat Hoveh!

Alma Lyons January 7, 2022 at 7:42 am

I think this is Awesome! We are a melting pot and claim to be a diverse community so, let’s Welcome them with Open Arms!

David Muccigrosso January 7, 2022 at 8:54 am

Thank heavens this didn’t turn into an expensive lawsuit. We’ve seen how the city has handled those in OTHER cases, haven’t we?

Tax Paying Citizens Have Rights January 7, 2022 at 10:27 am

The City of Norwalk has let down the citizens they were appointed to serve. The majority of the members of the GTBJ who spoke and submitted letters of support are not from Norwalk. This lot is TOO SMALL for this SIZE OF THIS PROJECT period. The impact this will have on all of the butting neighbors is exorbitant from a quality of life to property impact; this is just not right. T

John O'Neill January 7, 2022 at 10:28 am

I’d like to congratulate Mayor Rilling and his crack zoning staff for the terrific job they’ve done over the past 10 years for West Norwalk. If this isn’t a wakeup call to the taxpayers in West Norwalk I don’t know what is. As far as Attorney Suchy, I commend her for a job well done. She can look forward to collecting her fees and spending time continuing to help tighten the zoning laws in homogenous bucolic Wilton CT. I further look forward to seeing the difference between the drawings and the finished product in the upcoming years. Something tells me fantasy and reality will deal a nasty curve ball to the residents of Northern Richards Avenue. This will not be pleasant for the residents or this congregation. Personally, I welcome this congregation to West Norwalk. It might be useful to pass along this phone number – 203-838-2443.(Fedor Towing). Mention my name to Alan, he’s a terrific guy and friend. In my opinion Fedor Towing will be busy down the road. Any illegally parked cars can be retrieved once parking fines are paid. But then again, Attorney Suchy will be available to massage reality to beat Norwalk out of those fines as well.
In conclusion, I really don’t think Rilling will be running again. So, while he’s basking in the sunshine of retired life this will not effect him, his lifestyle or his bank account in 3 years. I’m sorry to say I can’t say the same for the residents of Northern Richards Avenue and West Norwalkers.
Thank You Harry. Thank You Bureaucrats in Zoning who didn’t do what was promised 7 years ago. Thank You Attorney Suchy for massaging reality, and running circles around an obviously scared Zoning Commission. Yes, this is a wakeup call. I just hope the alarm wasn’t set too late.

Shari Brennan January 7, 2022 at 11:44 am

Support building. There would be much more traffic, pollution and noise in additional to environmental disturbance if condos were built there. The group has provided all of the info required and has worked closely with the city in order to comply. As stated, there are additional non residential properties in area.

Piberman January 7, 2022 at 12:01 pm

Nice presentation by Nancy’s. Decades ago Norwalk had a positive reputation as CT’s most diversified and integrated large community. Even though surrounded by more “uniform communities” amidst the fabled Gold Coast. We haven’t lost our “character”.

NameCalling January 7, 2022 at 1:38 pm

Xenophobia is the fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners; that is not what the opponents demonstrated. If that is one’s perception, take the time to read the reasons. They are valid and well-researched. Name-calling is not very neighborly.

Barbara A. Amodio, Ph.D. January 7, 2022 at 2:20 pm

I write happily today as one of the few, possibly the only,’world’ diversity professor in the country,in enthusiastic support of this decision, and to highlight important and unique gifts hidden in the Sikkh tradition. Now that the necessary dust has settled, let’s have a look. To begin,very well done, Commissioners,especially the patient engagement and honoring of dissent. Democracy is frankly unnatural to ordinary human nature. Norwalk can certainly be proud of itself here. Democracy in fact requires a rare ‘spiritual’ state,to which the Sikkh saints have much to contribute, including meditation beyond rituals. The Sikkh tradition itself arises at the unique intersection of several important world traditions,a real interactive confluence at many levels. It is a hybridization that might surprise you incorporating Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Islamic, Sufi Seekers, and even more if we consider ancient forms of mystical Christianity and Judaeo-Christian communities within India not well known in the west, and other ancient strains. It is inherently a welcoming tradition born of many intimate intercultural engagements, all arising in encounters and leading toward unities and oneness of peoples forged along well-travelled routes down the Himalayas, across defining rivers, the marches of invaders, conquests, accommodations,lively trade of all surprising kinds, gastronomic fusion cooking, and more. A lineage of true Sikkh saints arose. Americans, never ‘accused’ of knowing geography,nor fully appreciating its intercultural implications or philosophical anthropology,can benefit by exploring and respecting the history and experiences of this remarkable tradition. The Gurudwara, beautifully and tastefully rendered, is indeed a cultural asset, a gift to Norwalk, highlighting the true dialogue of world religions and peoples, peaceful community interaction, and socially attuned welcomes. The sacred symbols apparent in the architectural rendering hold deep decodable meanings. Plumbing the depths of symbolic encryptions and meanings of sacred symbols and rituals in whatever culture, even your own, is a journey of discovery, and recognition of many hidden or forgotten commonalities, all scattered then gathered across many world traditions. How lucky we are! The Sikkh tradition is grounded in a well-established lineage of authentic, fully enlightened Masters,one after another, true members of ‘the community of saints’ that manifests across all world traditions, for Very God has never left humanity alone in its trouble. Rather than casting stones, might we not to greater advantage explore, honor and learn from the Saints, Seers and Avataras (incarnations) of all traditions? We might inform ourselves meditatively, prayerfully, and joyfully as we encounter the gifts presented by this member of the world’s major developed traditions, exploring the adventure of truths deeper than words. This Gurudwara is a gift to the human community, inside a democracy,in a nation of immigrants, a real ‘confluence’ of values. Bravo, Commissioners. Well and warmly said and done. Commissioner Wells is on the mark that these other issues just won’t come up. I’d add, it’s even better than you know.

Steve Mann January 7, 2022 at 4:25 pm

Norwalkers should realize that this decision was made well in advance of the “public outcry”. Anyone supporting this project does not live next door or even close. This could be a wonderful addition to the city if it’s built in the appropriate setting.

If you’re unhappy with this development remember back when the Islamic Center accepted a settlement in lieu of moving forward with their plan? Mayor Rilling at the time stated that the zoning laws needed to be changed so that this never happens again. To keep voting party lines and expecting change is insanity.

Jim Tru January 7, 2022 at 5:43 pm

I’m curious if this will actually be built.

I thought maybe they were taking a play from the mosque situation and maybe don’t have the funding but hoped that opposition would drive a settlement.

Sorry but Zoning in Norwalk really is out of wack to allow this large of a structure on a lot this size.

James Cahn January 7, 2022 at 7:34 pm

THIS IS SATIRE:

Compliments to Lou Schulman for his statist heroism. No public official should have to be expected to reasonably put up with the extreme difficulty of having to sit through “hours” of public comment for something that he had already decided on.

Schulman’s ability to see through and call out the claims of, “It’s not about the Sikh people. I think they’re wonderful people. I think we all agree on that front. It’s not personal. It’s about the size. It’s about the construction…(m)y opposition to it is strong because of the monstrosity of size. As simple as that” as anything other than “misinformation” and an “alternate truth” is brave beyond measure. Especially during a time when it’s so important to take “appropriate action” against the “enormous damage” that can be done by people voicing their opinions on what they think is appropriate in their neighborhood.

THIS IS NOT SATIRE:

Someone please get the person who said that will make West Norwalk look like the “Abu Dhabi skyline” pictures of the Abu Dhabi skyline. Specifically, maybe the Etihad complex or that Aldar coin building.

Is the thing about the “smell of food” a threat or a promise? I love a good Matar Paneer and the smell of that fresh bhatura is NEXT LEVEL. If I can go over there and smell that “24/7” and maybe even taste some, they’re going to eventually get sick of seeing me over there. There are few things that make me as happy and are as comforting as walking around my neighborhood and smelling people cooking all kinds of food!

John O'Neill January 7, 2022 at 9:52 pm

I may not have a PHD but I do think that an 18,000 sq foot building with massive spires doesn’t necessarily fit into a residential area of town. But I guess I’m not that smart. There’s something I must b missing.
Would love to have the congregation just not the monstosrity of a building.

Tom In East Norwalk January 8, 2022 at 9:15 am

Once again, the members of the Zoning Commission listened to the lawyers, developers and petitioners, debated the strengths and weakness, formed their opinions and made up their minds. Then they opened the public discussion portion of their meeting.

Following the public’s passionate input, the commission proceeded to insult the citizens who spoke up. Finally, the zoning commissioners voted as they knew they would weeks ago.

Brien John McMahon January 9, 2022 at 6:47 pm

Look, I missed the opinions offered by all the politicians; from East Ave. offices to the State and Federal levels. A show of support either way would have helped soothe the pain. Perhaps when construction is complete and the open house gala is run, they can spend 5 minutes talking about it in the public forum. I remember when the same politicians were asked to talk about the private out of town development team that brought Dreamy Hollow to the level it is at today 10 years later. Residents in the area spoke up, but not one elected official. Residents on the other side of Norwalk said, thank goodness its not in my back yard. Well, if Norwalk wont support each other publicly, they can do it with the polls. And no one should be surprised they got what they said they would settle for.

Steve Mann January 10, 2022 at 11:33 am

@brien. they’ll never “speak up” if it means going against party leadership. Your next mayoral hopeful, John Kydes, when asked about the 24/7 Norden distribution center fiasco, said “As a private citizen, I’d be against it”. No comment from the Councilman though.

David Muccigrosso January 11, 2022 at 9:15 am

The special pleading is off the charts here. “We want tolerance in principle, we just think these guys are lying”. “We want growth in principle, just never in our backyards”. “Government should listen to its citizens, but WE complainers are the only ones they should listen to right now, and it’s an insult/slap-in-the-face that they decided against us!”.

Listen to yourselves. A bunch of spoiled children. Supposedly adults. And homeowners! “Responsible citizens”.

For SHAME.

V.J.W January 11, 2022 at 7:58 pm

Hey David – own a house? or condo? Anything concern you in your area where you own? If there was a concern you wouldnt speak up? Listen to yourself.

David Muccigrosso January 12, 2022 at 8:16 am

VJW: You know, people back in the 1700s and 1800s used to justify restricting the franchise to people who owned land, on the supposed grounds that owning land gave them a “stake in the nation”.

What you’re implying is only different in scale. Do you honestly think that the only valid voices are those who “own a house… or condo”? Or did you just not think about the deeper implications of your words as you wrote them, because you’re overwhelmed by “concern… in your area where you own”?

Get out of here with that 18th-century rhetorical nonsense. We as a society abolished property requirements 200 years ago. The concerns of non-property-owners are VALID. And YOU don’t magically get to win every argument just because you signed a few pieces of paper.

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