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Westport Finds a Lot to Debate in Parking Rules

WESTPORT, Conn. – A proposal by Westport attorney Lawrence Weisman to create one standard of parking for places of worships, theaters and other places of assembly failed to win public support during a recent Planning and Zoning Commission hearing.

“It treats places of worship different than all other uses, and in so doing, discriminates against places of worship," Weisman, an attorney who represents two synagogues in Westport, said of the current standards.

As written, these regulations leave the town vulnerable to a lawsuit, he added.

Under zoning regulations, parking standards for places of worship are established by the fire marshal and are based upon occupancy load. Specifically, they are given the greater of one space for each three occupants of the sanctuary as determined by the fire marshal, or one space for each three occupants of all rooms, other than the sanctuary, used for social functions as determined by the fire marshal. The standard for theaters allows one space for every three seats. Auditoriums and stadiums are given one space for every five seats.

"It's an improper delegation of your authority to legislate to the fire marshal, and it doesn't have a fixed standard, which leads to inconsistency of results,” Weisman added.

Under his proposal, known as Text Amendment 645, Weisman recommends the creation of one standard for all these places of assembly. His proposed standard would allow one parking space for every three seats or one parking space for every 45 square feet of floor space used for public assembly, whichever is greater.

Weisman said the fire marshal should not play a role in determining parking for places of worship if he does not do so for other communal venues.

Commissioners Ron Corwin and Howard Lathrop, agreed, saying they, too, find the current regulations to be discriminatory.

Commissioner Jack Whittle, on the other hand, said he believes the regulations were designed for a reason and shouldn’t be changed.

“I think houses of worship and other places of assembly similar in nature have a unique parking load that’s not akin to a theater,” Whittle said. “And if they are truly different and distinct, it might make sense to continue to differentiate them."

Weisman represents Chabad Lubavitch, which plans to renovate the old Three Bears Restaurant on Newtown Turnpike into a synagogue, and Beit Chaverim, which plans to turn the property at 24 Ludlow Road, which it owns, into a synagogue.

Despite these projects, Weisman said his decision to seek a change in the town’s parking standards is independent from those projects.

Resident Joan Mall was one of several residents of Ludlow Road who asked the commission to deny Weisman’s proposal. Unlike Weisman, she believes the fire marshal should continue to help determine parking for places of worship.

"The fire marshal is responsible for public safety, and in my opinion, that’s why he’s called in. He’s responsible for establishing occupancy load for places of assembly and thereby, determining appropriate on-sight parking requirements," Mall said. "I just want you to think about Saugatuck Church. If you relax standards and there was a fire of that magnitude, what if fire trucks couldn’t get through because you relaxed standards so more cars were there than necessary?”

The commission did not vote on the proposal and will continue its public hearing at 7 p.m. March 1.

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