Appeals court orders Litchfield borough to pay Chabad Lubavitch’s legal fees

Chabad Lubavitch is set to receive $700,000 in reimbursed court fees from the Borough of Litchfield.

LITCHFIELD — The U.S. Court of Appeals 2nd Circuit recently ordered the Borough of Litchfield to pay more than $700,000 to Chabad Lubavitch of Litchfield County for legal fees.

The decision is part of an ongoing fight between the Chabad and the borough’s Historic District Commission, and involves a decision made by the district in 2007 when it denied an application to build a synagogue in the 19th-century Deming House on West Street, adjacent to the Litchfield Green.

In its ruling filed on Aug. 14, the court ruled the borough must pay the Chabad $717,405 for legal fees and services. In its suit, the Chabad asked for more than $1.6 million. The court decided that half the legal fees were appropriate.

Attorney Ken Slater, who represents the Chabad, was happy with the court’s decision. “We’re very pleased that we were successful and got the court’s ruling,” he said. “We’re happy that there’s a conclusion.”

Litchfield Borough Warden Dirk Patterson said Friday that he had no idea how the borough was going to pay the fees.

“We don’t have it,” he said. “We’ll have to raise taxes and pay it over time. ... There’s really nothing else we can do.”

The borough’s legal counsel disagreed with the decision.

“Under the judge’s order, the Chabad didn’t win anything,” said Litchfield attorney Jim Stedronsky, who represents the borough. “So they shouldn’t be entitled to any attorney’s fees. However, the circuit court felt differently.”

The borough hasn’t appealed the court’s decision yet. “The borough will decide whether they want to take this decision to the Supreme Court,” Stedronsky said.

The original application, filed in 2007, was for an addition to the West Street building to accommodate the Chabad of Litchfield County’s leader, Rabbi Joseph Eisenbach, and his family as well as the Chabad community, according to the ruling. The plan also included a mikvah pool, used by members for ceremonies.

“The proposed expansion required Chabad to apply to HDC for a certificate of appropriateness. ... HDC held four meetings in 2007 to consider Chabad’s application,” the ruling stated. ‘The purpose of of the meetings was to determine ‘whether denial of the Chabad’s application would place a substantial burden on the Chabad’s religious exercise.’ In December 2007, HDC denied Chabad’s application without prejudice ... it would not approve an addition as large as that proposed by Chabad, which was ‘over five times as large’ as the original structure and dominate the original house in every aspect.’

“The HDC invited the Chabad to submit a new proposal. HDC did not consider the (religious) needs of the Chabad in its decision, but analyzed Chabad’s use of the proposed interior ‘in an attempt to address what the (federal religions law) required of it,’” according to the ruling.

No new application was filed; instead, the Chabad filed a complaint in federal court against the borough in 2009, claiming it had violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The suit remained in litigation for nearly 10 years.

In May of this year, the district approved a scaled-down project application filed by the Chabad, which indicated in June that it was ready to begin construction. An application has been filed with the Litchfield Zoning office, and it has been approved. No work has begun on the building to date.

Connecticut Media Group