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SYNAGOGUE CONTROVERSY – TOO MUCH ILL WILL AND MISINFORMATION

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It’s a shame there’s such ill will being generated in the Cos Cob community, and so much misinformation. It’s painful to read some of the online commentary that fans the flames in this neighborhood conflagration, ignited by a proposal to build a synagogue on Orchard Street. Minds have closed. Hearts have hardened.

It makes no difference that there are as yet no specific building plans for the synagogue, no architectural drawings.There’s as yet no developed proposal to present to the neighbors. There’s only an imagined monster. Oppose this monster no matter what. Take up arms and fight it off, lest it destroy our neighborhood.

And heaven forbid anyone suggest a synagogue could be beneficial to the neighborhood, with the right design and planning, or that there might be room for dialogue. Anyone who dares take such a moderately reasoned approach risks immediate attack.

Cos Cob residents who are more open to the idea of a synagogue – such people do exist – are not likely to put themselves in the line of fire.

The letters to the editor by state representative Fred Camillo and prominent Greenwich Republican Ed Dadakis that appeared in Greenwich Time this past Tuesday and Thursday, respectively, exemplify the deepening divide and spread of misinformation.

Both the Camillo and Dadakis letters are attacks on Greenwich Time columnist Bob Horton who wrote about the synagogue controversy in his December 7 column.They contend that Horton inaccurately characterized a recent meeting the neighborhood opposition held at the Cos Cob firehouse and that he misrepresented Camillo’s role at that meeting, as well as that of state senator Scott Frantz.

But Horton’s basic description of the meeting does not differ factually from a November 21 Greenwich Patch article by Chandra Johnson Greene. The difference is that Greene’s article was straight reporting, and Horton’s column expresses an opinion and develops an argument, which is what columnists are supposed to do.

Horton argued that, as responsible elected officials, Camillo and Frantz could have exercised true leadership by bringing a more reasoned approach to this incendiary and emotional situation. And they could have provided certain basic information such as the nature of the zoning process, or that the synagogue plans were still in a very formative stage, or that there could be room for dialogue.

Instead, by playing on emotions and encouraging the audience to fight the synagogue, these elected leaders also encouraged divisiveness and did not take responsibility for fostering better communication and providing the community with more accurate information. This was the main thrust of Horton’s column.

That Camillo and Dadakis reacted to the column the way they did seems to illustrate the very point Horton was making.

Camillo writes:

“So, we went, we listened, we advocated, and we pledged to help in any way we can, and did so in a calm manner where we advised all to ‘speak with one voice.’ How is that dividing?”

Strangely, Camillo’s description of the role he and Frantz played is exactly what Horton said it was. But Camillo apparently does not see anything divisive in advising the audience to “speak with one voice” in what’s presumably unified opposition to Greenwich Reform Synagogue.

Camillo begins his letter by referring to Horton’s viewpoint as “incendiary,” in spite of the fact that Horton noted this as an opportunity for political leaders like Camillo and Frantz to “tone down the emotionally charged rhetoric and encourage true community conversation.”

While Horton called for defusing an incendiary situation, if anything, Camillo and Frantz fueled the fire of neighborhood opposition. Camillo’s use of the word “incendiary” in reference to Horton is therefore bizarre.

Camillo suggests that Horton’s column was “a blatant lie.” But while taking issue with Horton’s point of view, he offers no refutation of any of the factual information Horton puts forth. A viewpoint is just that. How can a personal point of view be a lie?

Following this fabrication theme, Dadakis calls Horton “a fantasy writer” and claims his writing is “grounded in neither fact nor fairness.”

So let’s consider this matter of accurate information.

Camillo refers to Greenwich Reform Synagogue’s plan to build on Orchard Street as “transforming a neighborhood, and thus setting a precedent where no neighborhood would be immune to commercial development… Churches and synagogues are both vital components of our community, for sure, but that doesn’t mean we can put them any place we like if we have the money to retain legal counsel and former P&Z members.”

These are misleading statements.

A house of worship, both by its nature and from a zoning perspective, is not commercial development. Building a house of worship in a residential neighborhood does not open the door to commercial development.  Many, if not most, Greenwich churches are in residential neighborhoods, and there is legislation pertaining to land use and religious institutions, with protections for places of worship.

Apart from these inaccuracies, there’s something truly disturbing about Camillo’s reference to the synagogue having “the money to retain legal counsel and former P&Z members.” This implies some kind of improper conduct on the part of Greenwich Reform Synagogue and unidentified former members of the Planning and Zoning Commission.

Without saying it exactly and without identifying the parties, Camillo implies there will be improper influence exercised in pushing through something that otherwise wouldn’t be permitted. Dadakis makes this implication explicit and identifies one of the former P&Z members.

Dadakis writes, introducing into the already highly charged situation an irrelevant and unhelpful politically partisan element :

“Horton failed to tell you that Democratic Chairman Frank Farricker is helping the synagogue in their quest for P&Z approval and is getting paid to do so. Not surprising, since Horton likes to protect Democrats. Farricker’s involvement sets off alarm bells of undue influence.”

Undue influence? Wow! That’s quite an accusation.

After reading the Dadakis letter, I contacted Greenwich Reform Synagogue president Robert Birnbaum  and learned that the Dadakis assertion is simply not true. According to Birnbaum, Farricker’s only role is as real estate broker, which is what Farricker does for a living. And the only compensation he’s receiving is his broker’s commission, as is appropriate.

That Farricker is a Democrat and former P&Z member is completely irrelevant.

Farricker has no involvement in the P&Z process which is being handled by the synagogue’s attorney Tom Heagney, who specializes in land use. Yes, quite some time ago, Heagney, a respected attorney who regularly appears before the Planning and Zoning Commission, himself served on that board. But so what?

Lies? Fabrication? Misleading information? Innuendo?

It is indeed a shame there’s such ill will, and so much misinformation.

Categories: General

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6 Responses

  1. Alma Rutgers says:

    I never saw these comments until just now, January 30. Frankly, I was surprised that I did not get any comments. Usually an email immediately alerts me to a comment that I can approve, not approve, trash or spam. I always approve a comment unless it’s clearly trash or spam. But for some reason, none of the comments on my blog postings about the synagogue or armed guards in the schools came through to me in an email. I only just now discovered them by accident, when I trashed an obscenity on the armed guards. Am now approving all the comments I missed.

  2. Jonathan Perloe says:

    Thank you, Alma, for injecting objectivity and reason into this debate.

    I agree that it is very disturbing for our elected officials to evidence so little faith in Greenwich’s land use process, and flame the fires rather than facilitating civil discussion about the issues. As I said in my letter to Greenwich Time, if Frantz and Camillo (in particular) believe that our land use policies don’t protect neighborhoods, they should be proposing changes to them, not vilifying GRS.

  3. Nicole Crosby says:

    Why are our comments not being posted?

  4. Nicole Crosby says:

    I’d just like to add to my previous comment that my offer to Ms. Rutgers of a tour of the site would obviously not require trespassing on any of the three parcels that comprise the proposed building site. Views would be accessed from the back of neighboring properties, and only with those neighbors’ permission.

  5. Ms. Rutgers,

    This statement of yours is both inflammatory and false.

    “There’s only an imagined monster.”

    Information about the proposed facility was taking directly from a detailed RFP on the Greenwich Reform Synagogue website as well as from President Birnbaum’s own blog.
    Your term “imagined monster” is clearly meant to characterize us as fearful, irrational and ignorant. We are in fact very knowledgeable, and details of the proposed facility are anything but imagined. We may not have a site plan, but we do have the RFP that GRS sent to 10 architects.

    From the RFP:

    “Our new facility will be approximately 20,000 square feet of usable space above ground and require parking for about 100 cars. The sanctuary will be roughly 2,500 square feet, plus a social hall of similar size that can be combined with the sanctuary, plus a chapel, a warming kitchen, approximately ten classrooms that can serve both as religious school and preschool classrooms, a board room, four offices, ample storage space throughout, and any areas necessary to fulfill our mission of serving our member families and the community (mechanical/storage space is not included in that rough estimate). We want to design a cost-effective facility with possible future expansion in mind.”

    From Mr. Birnbaum’s blog:

    “We’ve arrived at a view that the site must permit at least 20,000 sq. ft. to meet our needs today. More is better, and around 25,000 sq. ft. or above seems to be a level that permits the sort of future expansion…”

    If you would like a tour of the site, I would be more than happy to give you one. I’m listed in the phone book. I think you’d discover that having a 100-car parking lot plus an institution ten times the size of the 11 abutting homes, instead of trees, grass and houses, is no more objectionable to us than it would be to you. Have you considered such a project going up behind or next to you? Perhaps you should consider that before maligning the people who live in this neighborhood and depicting us in the way you’ve have in your last two blog posts on the subject.

  6. Mike Freiheit says:

    Our minds are not closed, our hearts are not hardened. We bought homes for our families in a specific area that we all love. I have not spoken with one single person whose home is impacted that agrees with the proposal. I’ve spoken with a few people who live blocks away or on the other side of town who are supportive but whom I doubt would have the same opinion if this structure were going up right next door to them.

    Therefore, for those directly impacted, we are unified in our opposition. And Fred and Scott, being elected officials who represent their people, are doing just that, and we are proud of them. What a novel idea – politicians who try to do the right thing for their community. I wonder if Ms. Rutgers’ long-time Democratic service and her opposition to Fred and Scott ‘s actions are just a coincidence.

    It is blatantly obvious that this structure, no matter the size, is not appropriate for this lot. This is only being done for profit motives. One of the landowners is in severe financial shape, at least that’s what he claims, and the synagogue could build in any number of other places, but for a greater expense.

    Finally, any negotiation is dependent upon the fair dealings of both sides. Unfortunately, the GRS’s dealings with Stanwich School, of which we know specific details, and their initial dealings with this plan (not notifying everyone, being vague about the size of the structure, etc.) make a majority of the opposition to this plan very sure of one thing – that the GRS and their consultant will do just about anything to get this done, and earn their commission, no matter who they impact. After all, they don’t live here, nor does Ms. Rutgers.