Revised synagogue plan fails to appease

Friday, November 7, 2008 1:39 AM EST
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

GUILFORD — There were tears, anger and allegations of discrimination as more than 30 people spoke at a public hearing this week on a plan to build a synagogue and day care center on Goose Lane.

After hours of hearings before the Planning and Zoning Commission on Chabad of the Shoreline’s proposal for a new religious facility at 181 Goose Lane, the public had the opportunity Wednesday night to lodge their support for, or opposition to, the project.

The specter of possible religious discrimination ran through the meeting, as several of those speaking for the plan said they feared anti-Semitism was a factor in the opposition, while many others in the audience denied it.

At the same time, the applicant submitted revised plans in the hopes of allaying some criticism of the building size. The latest proposal would reduce the building size by about 4,000 square feet, to about 13,700 square feet, within the original design’s footprint. The original plans called for a 17,700-square-foot structure.

But opponents were not appeased, saying the building is still too large for the 1.3-acre lot.

Residents of Guilford and other Shoreline towns speaking in favor and against Chabad presented starkly different versions of the plans and the Goose Lane neighborhood in question. Supporters described it as an area with easy highway access that has several industrial and commercial buildings — making it ideal for the synagogue. Opponents said the facility would impose on a residential neighborhood already dealing with dangerous traffic conditions.

The site, which features a three-family house, sits across from an industrial park and near the Yale-New Haven Shoreline Medical Center and the Exit 59 interchange of Interstate 95. It is also next to the home and medical practice of Dr. Donna Criscenzo, an internist, who has led opposition to the project.

A patient of Criscenzo’s, Elizabeth Schwartz Luna, appeared to fight back tears as she described her desire to keep the office as it is. Another patient, Michael Birch, called it a “pleasant sanctuary.”

“The residential calm of the neighborhood is going to be broken by a tall, looming building cheek by jowl with its neighbors,” Birch said. “The doctor and her practice will suffer irreparable harm.”

Guilford resident Suzanne Duran Crelin also was visibly upset as she expressed her fears that anti-Semitism could be stirring up some of the opposition.

“I think it’s time for Guilford to expand our horizons a little bit and make space for other groups and houses of worship,” she said. “There have been some rumblings in town that this is just about fear and anti-Semitism. I don’t want to believe that is the case, I really don’t.”

There was also disagreement about the traffic volume on the road. Experts hired by Chabad and the town concluded that additional traffic to and from the facility would not overburden the road.

“I travel down Clapboard Hill Road to Goose Lane and back at least twice a day and have done so for 30 years,” Rich Bloom said. “I have never even at peak hours had to wait more than 30 seconds to turn left on Goose Lane.”

Others said the road was dangerous and gridlocked at the intersections with I-95, Clapboard Hill Road and the Boston Post Road.

In presenting the plan over several days of hearings, Marjorie Shansky, the attorney for Chabad, has repeatedly said that the synagogue is intended for 100 people at a time, with larger crowds possible on a few important Jewish holidays every year. The revised plans include seating for 100 people in the sanctuary and 54 people in an adjoining social hall, down from a 100-seat social hall.

But speakers continued to challenge the 100-person figure Wednesday.

“This building has been built for a lot of people,” David Parker said. “We’re told, ‘Trust us, never simultaneous occupancy; trust us, never more than 100 people except for a few times a year — we just decided to spend a lot of money to overbuild arbitrarily.’”

Shansky said that part of the reason for the decrease in size was to reassure people about the occupancy figures.

Chabad is a Hasidic Jewish sect with branches worldwide. The Chabad of the Shoreline currently operates out of a storefront on Branford’s Main Street.

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