NORWALK, Conn. — Verbal arguments have been made for and against the Sikh religious center proposed for 283 Richards Avenue and will resume in January.
Nearly 200 people attended Wednesday’s virtual Zoning Commission public hearing on Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji Foundation’s application to build a 18,000 square foot, two-and-a-half story gurudwara on 1.01 acres of land in an AAA residence zone via a special permit. While neighbors predict their property values will fall should it be built, Attorney Liz Suchy warned Zoners that her clients have legal rights.
“I caution you on requiring things that have never ever been required of any other house of worship,” Suchy said, after telling them that “improper, arbitrary capricious” abuses of discretion would “likely violate my client’s due process and constitutional rights, including those protected under the (Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act).”
That federal law is otherwise known as RLUIPA and is familiar to many Norwalkers due to the lawsuit filed by the Al Madany Islamic Center in 2012 after its application to build a mosque on Fillow Street was denied. Norwalk settled the suit in 2014 at about a $2 million expense, with about $307,500 paid by the Connecticut Interlocal Risk Management Agency (CIRMA) and $585,000 invested in the property the mosque would have been built on.
Suchy, on Wednesday, laid out reasons the Sikh gurudwara is allowed as designed on the land formerly occupied by a single-family home, prebutting the objections she knew were coming from the public given the outcry generated by the application. It complies with the zoning regulations that are in place for the land and while opponents talk of floor-to-area ratio (FAR), there’s no FAR requirement in the AAA zone, “so comments that the gurudwara is too large for the lot are just incorrect,” she said.
Much of the commentary focused on the 240 seats planned for the worship area and the resultant calculation that 48 parking spaces are required, while 53 are planned. The Sikhs aren’t planning to increase their congregation but want “a reverent and proper venue for the free exercise and practice of their religion,” just like Christians, Jews and other denominations, Suchy said.
Friction ensued when Commissioner Richard Roina pressed architect Marco Reinheimer on the calculation used to come up with 240 seats for the worship hall. Suchy broke in to say “any other house of worship upon which parking was calculated was based upon a very similar plan” than the one reviewed by staff prior to the hearing, using the established ratio for seating.
“I’ve only been on the board for three years. So I have no experience with this type of application before this one,” Roina said. “But I did look at the code … it’s one parking space per five seats based on maximum seating capacity.”
“That’s exactly what we’re showing you,” Suchy replied, emphasizing that it’s fixed seating.
Michael Beattie, the City’s peer review consultant, issued a reservation about the parking because “in reality, if they have max attendance, the numbers didn’t line up. And there’s no street parking.”
Suchy and others say that people come and go from a Sikh service. While “you absolutely could have turnover,” there’s no data on what that might be, Beattie countered.
The zoning regulations don’t require a parking study “of this applicant or any other house of worship, nor has it ever been asked of any other house of worship,” said Suchy, who had informed the Commission that Fox Run Elementary School is available for overflow parking on special occasions and Norwalk Community College might also allow it.
Roina said, “First of all, you’ve reminded us at least four times tonight to be careful about how we judge. I’m trying to be careful. Part of the special permit application requires that we protect the neighbors, as you know.”
While he’s never judged an application for a religious center as a Zoning Commission member, every church he knows of sits on “acres of property,” he said. With no parking available on Richards Avenue, parishioners might use nearby side streets.
“But the point is, is that you’re bringing an application that absolutely maximizes the use of the property and yes, does it meet zoning requirements? I guess it does. But I think that we’re entitled as part of our review of a special permit application to consider these questions,” Roina said.
“Your concerns are certainly valid concerns. And I in no way meant to insinuate that they were not,” Suchy replied. “All I’m trying to do is to explain that the regulations as exist today are the ones that we divide we developed under…. we comply.”
In public speaking, many Sikhs explained that they are deeply entrenched in Norwalk, with Bhavan Kapur driving home the point by saying her family, “considers Costco as a second home.”
More than 500 people signed a petition opposing the project so “obviously the neighborhood is very concerned about a lot of issues,” said Cate Sanderson, presenting a detailed point by point dissection of the application. She attacked its description of public transportation being .9 miles away by asserting it’s actually .5 miles, and said it’s not a commercially oriented Triple A residence zone and the retail is not 1.3 miles away.
“Even though I agree with the person who just spoke, we all love Costco. We don’t walk there to buy a TV. So it’s far away from all perspectives,” Sanderson said.
The Commission should consider the FAR, even if Suchy says they shouldn’t, Sanderson asserted, detailing the gurudwara’s proposed FAR at 41%, compared to .5% at the United Congregational Church and at St. Matthew Church, and .8% at Temple Shalom.
“This will be the largest commercial structure on the smallest possible one-acre lot in the lowest density zone in Norwalk,” she said. “This project includes removing the only buffer between Richards Ave. and the quiet street of Betmarlea Drive, forever changing the neighborhood. This is not in keeping with the other houses of worship in the triple A residential zone.”
Barbara Garelick, who would live across the street from the gurudwara, asked how many people would actually be in the facility, given that it’s not just the 240 seats in the worship center, it’s the education center upstairs and the dining hall downstairs.
“I don’t understand why they need to build a building that’s three and a half times the size (of their current home) for no apparent reason other than to be inconsiderate neighbors,” she said. The calculation for parking is derived from “some unrealistic and outdated rule that Norwalk has” and, “what will Norwalk be able to put in place to help us regulate their capacity at 240 people?”
She said, “The closest public transportations a mile away, they’ve been told they cannot use the nearby lots for overflow parking. So what happens? They lie to us now and tell us they’re going to be no more than 240 members. But suddenly they grow and then the problems arise, and it’s too late. I can foresee this turning very ugly very quickly with cars parking illegally.”
Sanderson suggested that the Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji Foundation could expand its current facility on West Avenue; others said it’s an old bank, not designed as a religious center.
“There’s a lot of reasons that we need a new place and I am thankful to our community leaders who had been looking for a suitable place for years now,” Kulbir Saini said. “I think we are fortunate to finally be able to acquire this 283 Richard Avenue for that purpose.”
Ralph Layman said he’s been a member of the congregation for 20 years, after being welcomed in as “a single white man.” Two years later he got married and then sent a daughter to classes in the West Avenue facility.
“Quite frankly, they’re inadequate, (it’s a) very small building, it really wasn’t a pleasant experience. It’s not built for a gurudwara, it’s built for a bank,” he said. “Faith has gotten us through. We’ve been looking at places for a very long time to expand to, and it’s something that I wish my daughter would have had the benefit of.”
Farhan Memom, spokesperson for the Al Madany Islamic Center during that controversy, said the comments echoed the ones made during that process and “it’s interesting that I think that the commissioners have to be educated again, about RLUIPA.”
In 2015, Al Madany moved into the former Grace Episcopal Church at Union Park.
“I can tell you firsthand that when you do have a house of worship that’s purpose built, that has religious classroom facilities, and a dining facility, the nature of your congregation changes for the better,” Memom said Wednesday. “Not to say that it grows, but rather the experience that you have at the congregation is something different and something more meaningful for the people that worship there in the first place.”
But Taylor Strubinger, a former Zoning Board of Appeals member, said he agreed with Sanderson’s presentation and, “My big concern is that this is just too big for the neighborhood.”
Anthony Segalas said he’s lived in Connecticut for 30 years and moved to Betmarlea Road a year and a half ago. “I kind of wish I wasn’t a resident here based on everything that’s going on,” he continued. Supporters have “missed the point” by selling the Sikh community’s positive core values because “I buy into that, I agree with all that but that has nothing to do with our opposition to this plan.”
“I think the rendering was purposely done to, to make the building look a little look a lot smaller than it actually is,” Ken Montanez said, accusing Suchy of threatening Zoners. “I also think that she owes everyone on this call an apology.”
One area resident spoke in favor.
“Every city town in Connecticut has a district where multiple houses of worship are concentrated. Shame on those who want to stop this one from joining others in this area,” said Greg Dorsey, who lives on Weed Avenue. The “density” argument “has at least a tinge of racial or religious fear driving it… I say this because two area residents that I spoke with ignorantly expressed dismay that a mosque was going up. The unspoken implication in other words, that al Qaeda would soon be moving in setting up shop next door here in West Norwalk.”
Elizabeth Cortright said she resented that remark and accused Suchy of trying to squelch dissenting voices.
“Has anyone who supports this project voiced any recognition of the concerns of neighbors who object to tree removal, property valuation impact, parking concerns and traffic congestion? No. Have they disputed these concerns? No,” she said. “…We are opposed to the location of this exceedingly large structure in our community because of the impact it will have on our everyday lives. Commenters who are accused by others of religious bigotry because we oppose this building are owed an apology. Shame on you.
After nearly four hours of testimony, Zoners voted to continue the public hearing to Jan. 6. That’s five days before the Commission itself will shift into a new combined Planning and Zoning Commission on Jan. 11. Five current Zoning Commissioners are expected to be appointed to the new Commission, which will have nine members and three alternates.
“We’ll close the hearing for this evening and, as I said, we’ll reopen it again, on January 6, when those who have not yet spoken but wish to speak will have an opportunity,” Zoning Commission Chairman Lou Schulman said. “And Attorney Suchy will have an opportunity to provide rebuttal to this evening’s comments and to comments we receive on the sixth as well… and (we will) try to arrive at a decision regarding this application.”
Updated, 9:46 p.m.: City video added.