Chabad Lubavitch, a Westport, Connecticut Orthodox Jewish congregation that moved into the shuttered Three Bears Restaurant in early January and subsequently was issued a town cease and desist order, is working with the town to meet all legal requirements, according to an attorney for the group.
Attorney Lawrence P. Weisman, insisting that his client “did everything above board,” said Monday the group has no intentions of altering the exterior of the historic building at 333 Wilton Road. The Three Bears Restaurant, a Westport landmark since the early 1900s, closed in early 2009 after filing for bankruptcy.
Weisman said he requested and received an abeyance from Planning and Zoning Director Laurence Bradley.
The abeyance allows the congregation to conduct religious education classes in the building until Feb. 23 while preparation is under way of a site plan and special permit application for the Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z), Weisman said.
In the meantime, Weisman said that Rabbi Yehuda Kantor and his wife Dina Kantor, who head the congregation, have corrected all the property’s structural–related issues cited by Steve Smith, the town’s Building Official.
Cited were exposed plugs, unlit exit signs, non-working emergency lights, blocked exits, no fire alarm and no sprinkler certification. Weisman said these deficiencies were due to the building not being used for several years.
“These were all things that we corrected,” said Weisman.
When contacted, the Kantors did not wish to be interviewed at this time.
A Feb. 3 letter from Smith to Weisman, said, “All previous deficiencies in my Feb. 1 email have been corrected. Once a zoning permit is issued, a building permit is required. At that time a CO (certificate of occupancy) can be issued.”
“We were above board on everything we did,” said Weisman, adding that he had originally asked Bradley for a temporary permit to relocate to the newly leased space. “I asked for a temporary permit until I filed a special permit application.
“Larry Bradley said that the town did not give temporary permits, and he said that if he got any complaints from neighbors, he would have to follow up,” he added.
Within a short period of time, a neighbor complained, and a notice of violation was issued Jan. 13. Copied on the notice of violation was the property’s owner, Stephen Vazzano of Stowe, Vt., according to Bradley.
Throughout most of the building’s more than 200-year history, it has served as a restaurant and was even a stop on a stagecoach route, according to a restaurant history. Weisman stressed that the building’s historic significance will be respected.
“We are not going to do anything to the outside of that building,” he said. “All of the work will be done on the inside, such as putting up partitions.”
He added that Chabad Lubavitch moved into the building, despite not having permits, after being forced to leave its Ketchum Street building leased from Gault, Inc. at the end of December because the building was scheduled to undergo major renovations.
Weisman said he had made arrangements for the Kantors to move into the Ketchum Street location, a site approved by the P&Z, after the town had ordered the Kantors to stop holding services at their home on Kings Highway North.
“On Kings Highway North we told him he was in violation three or four years ago,” said Bradley, adding that the services caused people to park on the street and resulted in traffic backups.
“If you’re going to have a group of people on a regular basis, you have to meet fire codes, building codes and have a zoning permit.”
Bradley added that the special permit application “conceivably could take some time to be approved,” with neighbor notifications and public hearings. He noted that the temple Beit Chaverim at 85 Post Road West “has been trying for years, at least six years” to develop property it owns at 24 Ludlow Road.
According to Avi Kaner, chairman of the Board of Finance and a Chabad congregant whose wife Liz Kaner sits on its board, Chabad Lubavitch is an independent congregation aligned with a worldwide sect based in Brooklyn, N.Y.
The Kantors are described as “emissaries” who relocated to Westport 14 years ago, starting their congregation with religious study groups at the Kantors’ home on Sniffen Road before they built their second home on Kings Highway North.
They later rented space on Ketchum Street for a Hebrew school, Kaner said, before moving to leased space with an option to buy at the Three Bears location.
“When they did move in, they did a very minor amount of work, which they’ve now stopped, and they regret doing that, and they will not do anything of that nature until they get the approvals they need,” Kaner said.
“When they do file the application over the next couple of weeks, they will hold an open house at the Three Bears, and they will invite the community and the neighbors to come in and see what their vision and intent is,” he added.
“The other matter is they are generally respective of the historic value of the building, and they hope to maintain it.”
Kaner said that Chabad Lubavitch has been a good Westport neighbor since it moved to town, running an annual summer camp, Camp Gan Israel, for more than 300 children, in leased space at the Coleytown Elementary School.
Kaner also said that nine years ago his Chabad Lubavitch bible study class, in response to declining Israel tourism due to an uprising, sponsored a trip to Israel in a show of support.
“This March we will sponsor our ninth annual trip to Israel as representatives of Westport, even though now the tourism industry there is booming,” he said.
Kaner added that the congregation has also sponsored fundraising events for the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee and the Friends of the Israeli Defense Force.
He also does not think that getting a special permit to establish a synagogue at the new site will take too long, considering “this is an existing structure with parking for use as a public gathering.”
“It’s a similar use and a less intense use,” he said.
When asked if the site might also include a restaurant, perhaps a kosher one, Kaner said he was not sure since he had not discussed it with Kantor. Still, he noted that Kantor’s brother, the chief rabbi of Thailand, operates a restaurant in Thailand.