BY JOHN MCKENNA – Republican-American
A 10-year legal fight between the Borough of Litchfield’s Historic District Commission and Chabad Lubavitch of Litchfield County has ended in Chabad’s favor in U.S. District Court in New Haven.
A ruling by Judge Janet C. Hall on Wednesday paved the way for Chabad to convert a 2,656-square-foot Victorian at 85 West St. into a synagogue and community center for its Orthodox Jewish congregation, a plan the Historic District Commission denied in 2007 on the basis that the proposed building would overwhelm the streetscape and detract from the district’s character.
“We won the case and we’re very happy that after a 10-year struggle, we can move forward with our plan,” one of Chabad’s attorneys, Daniel P. Dalton of Detroit, said Thursday. “At the end of the day, (the synagogue and community center) will be built.”
Hall, in a ruling that followed a nonjury trial in August, found the Historic District Commission in violation of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and ordered it to approve Chabad’s plan.
“It has been a very long road for us, but from the very beginning, we believed that Chabad’s right to practice its religion was being denied,” said Kenneth R. Slater Jr. of Hartford, another Chabad attorney.
The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act is a law designed to protect religious institutions from discrimination by government agencies.
Chabad’s plan originally called for expanding the 135-year-old Victorian into a 21,011-square-foot building that would have included a 5,000-square-foot apartment on the second story of an addition for the leader of Chabad of Litchfield, Rabbi Joseph Eisenbach, and his family.
Hall’s ruling, however, declared that the residence is not necessary, and having Eisenbach and his family live elsewhere would not place an unreasonable burden on Chabad’s ability to exercise its religion. The plan, Hall ruled, should be modified to eliminate the second story from the planned addition.
Chabad, according to Hall’s decision, has 30 days to submit a modified plan. The Historic District Commission then would have 30 days to approve it.
The attorney representing the commission, James Stedronsky of Litchfield, described Hall’s ruling as thorough and thoughtful and said the commission would abide by it. Stedronsky, who discussed the ruling with the commission in executive session on Thursday night, said he was pleased Hall required the elimination of the second story.
After rejecting Chabad’s plan in 2007, the commission invited Chabad to present a new, less intensive plan, but the offer was not accepted.