After two public hearings and a revised set of plans for parking and stormwater runoff, the Planning and Zoning Commission approved a special permit to add a meeting room and small chapel to St. Mary’s Church on Jan. 22.
The additions will add a 1,673-square-foot space for a meeting room, prep area for coffee, and two handicapped accessible bathrooms at the southeast corner of St. Mary’s, which is located at the corner of High Ridge Avenue and Catoonah Street. That addition will also raise the front entrance of the church for easier accessibility for people with disabilities.
“The two issues that they’ve run into is they’ve outgrown their original location and they’re no longer ADA compliant,” said attorney Bob Jewell, who represented the church, at the first public hearing on Dec. 18.
Jewell said the church has had to rely on its space outdoors for larger events.
“As we live in New England … the weather can be a bit dicey,” he said.
The church’s sacristy — a space for priests to prepare — will be gutted and converted into a small chapel, according to the project’s architect Vincent Falotico.
“The current chapel is next to the school, so it’s not so quiet,” Falotico said.
Jewell said that because the addition is not meant to increase the capacity of the church, but for the parishioners who already use the church, it is not expected to increase traffic.
The plan will also add a section of sidewalk to the west side of High Ridge Avenue.
The extra sidewalk will allow churchgoers “to go from the parking lot, along the same side of the road, to a crosswalk up at the stop sign,” Falotico explained.
Construction on the new additions is expected to start in April, Falotico said, and should be completed within a year.
The church also presented a new plan to manage runoff water from rain and snow at the Jan. 22 hearing, after Catoonah street residents raised concerns about flooding at a Dec. 18 hearing.
The original plan to put a rain garden at the northeast corner of the property would have allowed overflowing stormwater to flow in sheets over the eastern side of the property, where there are several homes.
That stormwater plan drew criticism from the commission and Bryan Nesteriak, a peer review expert for the town. It also drew the ire of Catoonah Street residents.
“When we have a heavy rain, the water comes down Catoonah like a river,” said Catoonah Street resident Maureen Lutz at the December hearing.
“As far as this rain garden, that would be a disaster,” she added. “We don’t want our basements flooded.”
Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti said the potential for flooding from the design would place an “unreasonable expectation” on neighbors, and would not have her support.
“We haven’t had a lot of success with rain gardens in the past,” she added.
Under the new plans included in the approval, stormwater will run through a drainage system on the High Ridge Road side of the property, just north of the church.
Robert Pryor of LandTech, the church’s engineer, said the revised plan will not increase the amount of runoff from the church over the eastern property line.
Landmark status, parking
Four commissioners voted in favor of the application, with commissioners Joe Fossi, Cathy Savoca, and Mark Zeck recusing themselves from voting or hearing the application. All three recused commissioners said they are members of the church.
Commissioners John Katz and Bob Cascella voted against the special permit. Katz said he was voting against the addition because it would alter one of the town’s historic landmarks.
“I’m going to vote against it not because I find it offensive in any way, but it does in fact transgress the standards of the landmark-preservation concept,” said Katz.
Jewell argued that the design had been approved by the Diocese of Bridgeport.
“On the aesthetic issue, since this is is a religious use, the religious land-use institutionalized persons act does apply, so it does deserve the kind of difference that typical, non-religious applications would not warrant,” he said.
Cascella took issue with changes to the parking plan submitted by the church, which he said went outside the scope of a zoning variance the church received from the town Zoning Board of Appeals.
The updated parking plan maintains the number of parking spots at the church by widening the church’s driveway to add two spots.
Two other parking spots that exist now would be erased to add van-accessible handicap parking spots.
“I’m troubled by the addition of two parking spaces in the 11th hour,” said Cascella. “I think that this is a change to what was granted by the Zoning Board of Appeals, based on the addition of two parking spaces.”
In the end, none of the other four commissioners seemed concern by either issue, approving the project with a 4-2 vote.
“I think the commission can look at the special permit criteria and this application and approve it with confidence, and we would ask that you do so,” said Jewell.