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Proposed Sikh religious center draws West Norwalk pushback in Zoning public hearing

Chris DeAngelis , a civil engineer, speaks to the Zoning Commission during Wednesday’s public hearing on Zoom.

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.”

Cate Sanderson speaks to the Zoning Commission during Wednesday’s public hearing on Zoom.

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.

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

“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.”

Cate Sanderson shows the Zoning Commission a rendering prepared by neighbors, during Wednesday’s public hearing on Zoom.

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.”

Cate Sanderson criticizes a rendering prepared on behalf of the Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji Foundation, calling it “insulting.”

“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.

16 comments

Tony P December 13, 2021 at 7:19 am

The NIMBY-ism is strong with these folks. Aren’t there, like, two church’s and a community college on this street already?

David December 13, 2021 at 8:47 am

I am mystified by the poor judgment shown by the gurudwara’s leaders – as I was by the mosque’s leaders years ago. One acre of land is simply insufficient for a project of this size. The RLUIPA shouldn’t be a bludgeon to force people to accept a pretty crappy idea.

John O'Neill December 13, 2021 at 9:34 am

I have no problem with Temple being built as long as it’s physical structure doesn’t change the character of West Norwalk. If they could reduce the size of the spires that might work? I also have concerns with the capital required to conform to architect’s rendering. Is there a cost estimate on the structure with all the items included in the presentation? If the congregation is not going to grow how are they going to be able to finance what’s been presented without cutting corners? I believe someone mentioned about 60-100 active members?? I don’t know much about construction but that seems like a lot of money for the number of attendees.
Lastly, it should be noted that Liz Suchy is very passionate in her defense of the project. While I find that admirable, it should be pointed out she lives in Wilton, Ct. Wilton has probably the most stringent zoning codes in the area and a pretty darn homogenous population. By the way, it’s her right to live wherever she wants and represent whatever project she wants. I just find it amusing that while she pulls into her driveway at the end of the day she’ll be looking at 50 foot Pine Trees. The residents of West Norwalk will have a slightly different experience if she gets everything she wants. That just doesn’t seem right.

One last point: I believe Mayor Rilling promised a thorough evaluation of zoning laws after Fillow Street Fiasco in 2014. Can someone from City Hall comment on who was in charge of that evaluation and what modifications were made?

Think Progress December 13, 2021 at 11:11 am

Drive by the Richards Avenue address to which this discussion refers and take a common sense gander. Before being destroyed, it contained a single-story ranch home in proportion to the surrounding property. It is close to a busy three-way intersection surrounded by two-story homes. The capacity for this place, again common sense, is another house in a residential area. Betting against inadequate zoning standards to place a too large institution on this spot makes no sense.

David Muccigrosso December 13, 2021 at 11:23 am

So let me get this straight… neighborhood busybody shows up, pulls some statistic out of her rear that we’re just supposed to believe (“FAR”), and then makes some sweeping declarations about density and value which, by the way, are absolutely wrong: recent studies (https://www.sltrib.com/news/2021/02/22/yes-my-backyard-study/) have shown that density INCREASES housing prices.

What’s even funnier, besides the NIMBY mangling of economics, is she’s making an argument about density… for a *church*. Churches aren’t density! No one’s going to be living there. Just LOOK at the proposed structure: It’s a detached building, set back with plenty of lawn space from the curb. It absolutely matches the residential character of the neighborhood. Like most churches do. Please, Cate, someone, anyone just explain to me how this mid-sized *church* in any way resembles all those hideous new buildings in SONO.

This is NIMBY at its worst, folks. Incoherent, fearful, just trying to hang its hat on anything to make entrenched homeowners look like the underdog. Cuz everyone likes an underdog, right? No one wants to go back to the bad old top-down days of Bob Moses, right? But he’s been dead for 40 years, folks.

The best way for Norwalk to grow is incrementally. No more megaprojects, but allow everything to upzone by the next biggest increment, so that we don’t force all the growth onto one neighborhood like has been done to SONO for the past 20 years.

DryAsABone December 13, 2021 at 3:55 pm

Sikh’s are cool! What is wrong with this neighborhood? They are acting like the live in New Canaan or Darien.
Get with the program people. That neighborhood will benefit from this project.

BJ December 13, 2021 at 8:07 pm

May I point out that the biggest traffic problem on Richards Ave is the morning drop off and dismissal pick-up times for Fox Run School. On weekends in the spring and summer it is the arrival and departure of cars from the Little League baseball games.
There are already two houses of worship on Richards Ave plus St Matthews around the corner on Scribner. So, adding a third does not change the nature of the neighborhood.
And yet, there have been no suggestions that these facilities be removed or restricted.
And as for the required lot size needed for a religious facility, I would point out that there a plenty of houses of worship in Norwalk that are large and sit on small lots.
Finally, there is not a parking restriction on the Richards Avenue adjacent to any of the religious facilities and the lot for the proposed temple.

Concerned Neighbor December 13, 2021 at 9:37 pm

I closely watched the entirety of the marathon public hearing live last week on 12/8. Whenever the public record link is posted, I strongly suggest viewing it in its entirety if you live in Norwalk, or simply are passionate about this matter from any perspective. To the best of my knowledge the city has not yet released a public link to the full video stream of the hearing.
When it becomes available, please respect the time our Zoning Board Members and the Applicant/Architect/Engineer/Attorney’s collectively spent that evening by reviewing it for yourself if you were not in remote attendance that night.
You may all then draw your own conclusions from those proceedings after witnessing them first-hand without a filter or any spin applied.
I am reticent and frankly concerned to even offer public commentary on this matter after witnessing just the first hour of it before the hearing transitioned solely into public statements that amounted to essentially 2hr’s of filibustering by the project’s supporters.
Have a legitimate concern over the Proposed Project?… “Be Careful”…. Thats the critical path take-away from the hearing to bear in mind.
It was openly admitted that many key aspects of the permit filing and the projects design have already been arbitrarily altered several times to date, simply to outwardly more closely conform on paper to the bare minimum requirements for their Special Application to be granted despite conflicting with all previous statement’s & filings…. When asked directly if any of those numbers had any actual bearing in reality moving forwards by our commissioners?… “Be Careful”.

I truly hope those proceedings are made public for all to view and consider for yourselves as I have.

Starting a community relationship by absolutely bullying your way in while threatening anyone who has a dissenting opinion with veiled threat of legal action, isn’t right… and it sure isn’t neighborly.

“Be Careful”

Nancy Guenther Chapman December 13, 2021 at 9:49 pm

I have added the video, which was posted Monday. The gurudwara hearing begins at 19 minutes into the video. The public speaking begins at an hour and 54 minutes. Cate Sanderson’s presentation begins at two hours and 12 minutes.

David December 15, 2021 at 9:02 am

You’ll forgive me if I’m not excited for yet another tax payer bailout of West Norwalk for relocating a religious institution. First the Mosque, now this? I’ll pass. Let ’em build.

Norwalk Lost December 15, 2021 at 3:24 pm

Meritless overtones of “religious discrimination” are shamefully on clear display here. And while in agreement religious centers have many benefits to sub sects of the community, conflating the worthiness of a religious center with zoning expediency is toxic bait which zoning commissioners should avoid. The proposed structure size of one acre abutting multiple residencies along a dangerous intersection are some red flags among many. This will also be one of the largest gurudwaras in the tri-state area (and agree with the “build it and they will come” Zoom commentator). Why are the petitioners, as members of the community, pressing forward with an application that is clearly out of synch with the residential area and lack the acreage of property comparable to other religious center in the area? Curious to say the least. . . This is a no-brainer denial and worthy of a litigious path should applicants decide to pursue with a likely rejection pending.

Steve Mann December 15, 2021 at 3:28 pm

As long as Norwalkers on one side of town shout NIMBY claims against those on the side facing issues, the city residents will never act as one and you’ll get steamrolled on every issue. United you stand, divided you fall.

Soon the sun’s rays will be blocked by new structures on East Avenue and Winfield Street, and this behemoth, outlandishly out-of-place religious center, and you all will wonder where your charming maritime feel has gone. Bayonne, and Kearny in NJ are “maritime” communities. Good luck.

Rob Hollins December 16, 2021 at 7:49 pm

You gotta love lines like this “No more megaprojects, but allow everything to upzone by the next biggest increment” hey lets just print more money because why? people will naturally spend it. There’s needs to be zone regulations and zoning laws just like everything else. Something that the Mayor promised to address. Norwalk is still waiting…..

Tanner Thompson December 20, 2021 at 12:50 pm

Good grief people, it’s not your right to tell other people how to use their land. Let them build the temple.

If it puts stress on our transportation system, that’s a problem with the transportation system, not the building. Let’s get the Transit District to run some more buses out there and have TMP put in some bike lanes so that more people can get to the temple without a car – and then welcome the newcomers into the neighborhood.

Tax Paying Citizens Have Rights December 21, 2021 at 11:56 am

When the time comes to purchase a home we all look at the location we’re purchasing in; as for most of us, our home is our largest investment. When the neighbors of Richards Avenue, Betmarlea and surrounding neighborhoods purchased and/or built their homes 283 Richards Ave; a 1.01-acre lot in a AAA residential low-density zone had a house on it. Never would anyone anticipate that an 18,000 sq. ft non-residential structure would try to build here covering the entire lot with a mammoth structure surrounded by concrete; decimating the woods and trees that surround the property forever changing the neighborhood, quality of life of all living in this area and decreasing property values by 10-15% (impact study performed by the neighbors using Greenwich Stamford appraisers). Zoning laws are in effect to protect everyone, that includes the neighbors of this community as well as the owner of the lot. Plain and simple, this lot is too small for the project being proposed. It’s in everyone’s best interest; including the City of Norwalk to find an appropriate location so the owner can build a house of worship & religious education center that fully meets their needs and then Norwalk P&Z really needs to get down to the business of evaluating outdated P&Z guidelines to prevent another outlandish building proposition from happening again.

John Levin December 22, 2021 at 6:41 pm

TPCHR – of course tax paying citizens have rights, but it appears that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 granted special rights to persons who wish to use property of religious purposes. Non-religious people are not able to use or enjoy any of those special rights.

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