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Westport Jewish Organization Faces Scrutiny

WESTPORT, Conn. – A nonprofit Jewish orthodox organization that serves Westport, Weston, Wilton and Norwalk is in the spotlight, but not because of its work in the community. Instead, Chabad Lubavitch of Westport came under fire for moving into a former restaurant without receiving approval from the Westport Planning and Zoning Department.

Kenneth Gruder, counsel for the nonprofit, said the organization did not intentionally violate Westport's zoning laws when it moved its office into the former Three Bears Restaurant, located at Wilton Road and Newtown Turnpike, between Christmas and New Year's.

"The Chabad had a deadline to move out of its former space on Ketchum Street because that building is undergoing construction," Gruder said Monday. "We were hopeful we would have the necessary permission to move in, but it turned out we need a special permit, even though [the building] was a public meeting space as a restaurant."

Currently, Chabad is leasing the building. Gruder said the organization intends to buy it and transform it into an outreach center to be used for worship services, Jewish education and learning programs and special events.

The nonprofit was cited Jan. 13 for occupying the building without a special permit after the Planning and Zoning Department received word from a neighbor that there was activity on the premises, Planning and Zoning Director Laurence Bradley said.

Under zoning regulations, violators have 10 days to correct the violations, Bradley said. If violations cannot be addressed in 10 days, Bradley said an abeyance— a 30-day extension during which enforcement is suspended— can be requested.

An abeyance was requested and granted, Bradley said. Chabad now has until Feb. 23 to file special permit and site plan applications, which must be approved by the Planning and Zoning Commission. This means there will be public hearings on the issue, Bradley said.

In addition to being granted the abeyance, the organization has received proper approval from the building department for "inconsequential" improvements it made inside the building without permits, Gruder said.

The planned renovations, Gruder added, will only affect the building's interior, not the exterior. The building's footprint will also not be impacted, he said.

"Similar to what you'd expect any house of worship to entail, it will have a place to worship, a place for children to learn, a place for adults to learn, and a place for special events, whether they be musical, social and other things of that nature."

Chabad, Bradley said, will be in violation of zoning regulations until it receives special permit approval. Once the organization files the special permit and site plan applications, the Planning and Zoning Commission has 65 days to hold a public hearing.

Before then, Gruder said the organization is planning to invite the neighborhood to hear about its plans for the building.

"We're all saddened by this," Gruder said of the controversy. "The last thing we wanted to do was upset our neighbors or the town."

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