For nearly a year, city officials have allowed the Orthodox Jewish rabbinical school Yeshiva Gedolah to break zoning rules by creating makeshift dorms in predominantly single-family neighborhoods surrounding its Hillside Avenue campus.
But the city might not turn a blind eye much longer.
The Zoning Commission this week invited the city’s attorney to its November meeting to discuss the issue. And Mayor Michael J. Jarjura has asked the city’s attorney and assessor to consider the legal bars on dormitories in the neighborhoods.
We should tell them to come in and do what you have to do (to conform to local laws) or well issue a cease-and-desist, Zoning Commission member John Egan said. If every other church has to come before us, I don’t see why they should be any special exception.
Zoning regulations allow owners of residential properties to rent rooms to only two unrelated boarders at any time. Otherwise, group dwellings require special permits from city boards.
The yeshiva owns at least 10 houses, and city staffers uncovered dorms in some of these late last year while investigating complaints.
The dorms are an obvious breach of the city’s land-use regulations, City Planner James Sequin told the Zoning Commission this week. But city staffers were leery of infringing on the students religious rights, he said. So, after meeting with yeshiva leaders, city officials agreed to allow things to continue as long as there were no flagrant problems, Sequin said.
The city’s fire marshal also inspected, and cleared, the dormitories, he said.
Three yeshiva dormitories can be found in houses on Farmington Avenue. The street is lined with grand old Colonial homes, a few ranches and two-family homes. Yeshiva students are constantly coming and going on the street — conspicuous in their yarmulkes, black pants and white shirts.
Several neighbors said the yeshiva students are a welcome addition to their neighborhood. They drive like Brooklyn cab drivers, but who cares? said 74-year-old William Regan, a roofing contractor recovering at home from pneumonia. Ive never had any problems with them.
They’re just kids, dear, interjected Regans wife, Barbara. She recalled one boy insisted on helping her carry groceries when her husband was in the hospital. If there was a problem, Id be the first to complain, Barbara Regan said. I find them very respectful.
Yeshiva student Eli Lang, 16, said he can understand noise complaints, but stressed his classmates do their best to fit in. The schools rabbis have impressed upon them the need to be courteous and respectful, he said.
We are not looking to make enemies. We want to make friends, Lang said.
The latest round of city interest in the dorms was sparked by Alderman Denis Odle, who asked the Zoning Commission to order Sequin to enforce the city’s zoning codes. Odle said he has received nearly two dozen complaints about poorly maintained properties and wild driving by the youths.
I think this is a fundamental question of integrity of the neighborhoods, Odle said.
Now, the city administration, which has been careful to foster the yeshiva, is beginning to ask the same questions. Mayor Michael J. Jarjura ordered the city attorney and assessor to investigate the dorms after the yeshiva recently requested tax-exempt status for several more properties.
The yeshiva could apply for special permits for some of its dorms, but Jarjura and Odle both said they oppose that option. Jarjura said he believes the yeshiva could create housing on its campus.
I think having the yeshiva here is a plus for the city, but, as a general rule, you cannot allow the integrity of single-family neighborhoods to be compromised, Jarjura said.
Almost a dozen homes are at the center of a building code conflict in Waterbury. A rabbinical school has been turning single homes into dorms. For a long time the violations have been overlooked.
This isn’t just a stop for this school bus. The whole bus got off and went in one of two nondescript houses on this residential block. What’s going on?
“They’re being used essentially as high density dorms,” says Republican Alderman Dennis Odle. “This is being done in about 11 different boarding houses now.”
Alderman Odle represents this section of Waterbury. He says the dorms are for students of a yeshiva, a rabbinical school, but they’re in areas zoned residential. Running what is essentially a boarding house here is illegal.
“It’s a matter of maintenance, it’s a matter of traffic in the area, it’s a matter of noise,” Odle said.
Messages left at the yeshiva office were not returned, and all the students went inside the dorms when they saw our camera.
Before our camera came out and everybody disappeared into the various houses, a couple of the yeshiva students said that this is just a temporary problem and the yeshiva is going to build actual dormitories on the campus in a year or two.
But they’re breaking the law now, and have been for months, maybe years. Boarding houses are required to meet building and fire codes for the safety of the people living there. Odle says Waterbury has welcomed the Yeshiva and the growing Orthodox Jewish community, but the law is the law.
“The idea that we’re not going to enforce zoning at all or not going to enforce it for some groups or another is completely out of bounds,” Odle said.