MONROE, CT — Jih Rong Temple, whose members practice Taoism, plans to move into the building at 707 Main St. A change of use is needed to allow a house of worship there and Town Planner Rick Schultz is drafting a resolution of approval for the Planning and Zoning Commission to vote on.
The building is currently occupied by Fairfield Auction. Jack and Rosemarie Slawinski opened the business there nearly 13 years ago. The couple said they believed the former restaurant and banquet facility with 198 parking spaces was an ideal venue for hosting live auctions.
But the COVID-19 pandemic forced the couple to hold online auctions, in which top bidders later picked up their purchases curbside. The change worked out so well, they now hold smaller live auctions, as well as virtual ones.
“We’re moving to a smaller building,” Rosemarie said, though she could not say where due to pending negotiations.
Now, the Slawinskis are selling the property to Jih Rong Temple Corp., which wants to use some space in the approximately 9,800-square-foot building for worship services that would be held Sundays, between 8:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.
The temple also wants to lease the rest of the building to commercial tenants.
While deliberating on the application last Thursday, Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Michael O’Reilly said it has enough parking and Vice Chairman Bruno Maini said the use wouldn’t generate a high volume of traffic.
If the facility were to revert back to a restaurant, Secretary Ryan Condon said it would generate significantly more traffic daily.
“This couldn’t be a restaurant,” he said. “We’re changing the use. This is probably going to prevent what would be more of a traffic nightmare.”
“Do we lose tax revenue on the commercial space?” Robert Westlund, a commissioner, asked.
This week, The Sun asked Assessor Justin Feldman how the property would be taxed.
“The portion of the property which is being utilized exclusively for religious purposes will be exempted pursuant to CGS 12-81(13) and the portion of building/property which is being leased out for commercial purposes will be assessed as taxable property,” Feldman explained.
During deliberations Thursday, Leon Ambrosey, a commissioner, said he wants a traffic study.
“Why burden them with a traffic study when it’s going from an auction house to a church on Sundays?” O’Reilly asked.
Ambrosey noted how churches often need a police officer to direct traffic on Sundays, because vehicles arrive and leave at the same times. “I thought we should have a study done to be secure about it,” he said.
“With future uses you have a second shot at it,” Schultz said of the commercial tenants that may move into the building.
Though the town could be losing a tax source, Condon said, “we have to remember, sometimes it is a good thing to bring people into town for our businesses. There are good vegetarian options in town.”
During a hearing on the application held earlier Thursday night, Edward Loh, a representative of the Jih Rong Temple Corp., told the commission 25 to 50 members from New Haven and Stamford would participate in worship services with the possibility of 100 on some occasions.
Jason Edwards, an engineer and owner of J. Edwards and Associates, represented the temple during the hearing.
“They’re not changing the outside or inside of the building,” Edwards said. “They’re just going to move in and use the space.”
He said there is an abundance of parking with the 198 spaces, where only 50 are required for the use, adding the septic capacity is double what his client needs.
Edwards said the temple plans to try to rent out the rest of the two-story-building for commercial uses for the lease revenue. He told commissioners any commercial uses requiring a permit would have to come before them for approval, with anything else being as-of-right.
“They have no tenants in mind, but the intention is to lease those spaces,” he said.
The entrance to the businesses would be in front of the building facing Main Street, while the temple would use a separate side entrance, according to Edwards.
He said the temple will not hold funeral services or weddings.
Maini asked if there is anything similar to a Bible study.
“We don’t do that,” Loh said. “We pray every Sunday. Every first of the month and 15th of the month about four-or-five come to pray. We don’t do studies.”
Westlund asked if they planned to use the kitchen.
“We don’t know at this point,” Loh said. “We are vegetarians. We don’t bring in outside food. If we do, we will have formal construction plans for the Building Department to review.”
Westlund noted that the commercial kitchen, once used for a restaurant and banquets, is a large one.
Loh said it has not been a restaurant for a long time and is now used for storage, adding there is no kitchen equipment inside. “If we put equipment in there, we will submit an architectural plan for it,” he said.
When members of the public had a chance to speak, Rosemarie Slawinski told the commission she and her husband were approved to hold auctions there after buying the property in 2010.
“All are on Sundays,” she said. “We had no problems at all with parking. Never had any issues at all with the traffic, so I don’t think this warrants a traffic study.”
Anna Pizzoferrato, of Edge Hill Circle in the nearby Northbrook condo complex, expressed concern over traffic.
“It’s hard enough to get out of the condo complex during peak hours and turn left onto 25,” she said. “I think there will be a traffic impact on us with everybody arriving and leaving at the same time. There is the potential to generate a lot of traffic on 25.”
Margaret Lee, who also lives at Northbrook, agreed that the traffic is “unbearable.”
“I have no objection to any religion of any kind, but this seems like a purchase of another commercial property that can be used as something else,” she said, adding of the traffic near Northbrook’s driveway, “this is a huge issue for us trying to get out of Dodge. All we can say is, ‘please don’t load us up with more right now.'”
Joel Leneker, of Huntingtown Road, who is also president of the Save Our Stepney Task Force, expressed support for the proposal.
“It’s a very creative way to incorporate a religious facility with commercial to support their church,” he said. “I support this application and it’s an opportunity to grow. It’s just a question of how large the intent is to grow.”
“This was a restaurant that was profitable for a lot of years,” Leneker continued. “There’s plenty of parking, so I would support this application.”
Edwards said the temple proposes to use far less of the building and the property than the auction house did.
“I don’t see how we should be required to do a new traffic study when we’re applying for a lower impact use,” he said.
Westlund asked if any members of this community would be attending the temple.
“Not in Monroe,” Loh said. “We have members from New Haven and are branching out to recruit new members in the area. It could be you. It could be him. That’s our mission.”
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