Front porch application in Shelton leads to Wiccan church questions
Shelton neighbors cite traffic concerns
SHELTON -- When Mary Peck moved into her Greenfield Drive home a decade ago, she picked the neighborhood for its quiet, residential feel.
But now she and her neighbors are afraid that tranquility will be shattered by a neighbor who uses his property to host Wiccan ceremonies and rituals.
Peck and several of her neighbors attended a meeting of the Zoning Board of Appeals Tuesday to speak against Robert de Maille von Schmidt's application for a variance to construct a front porch on his house that is in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
While neighbors say they are against the construction of the porch because the lot isn't big enough, what they are afraid of is that Schmidt is making the house ADA compliant in order to use it as a temple for the Wiccan Coven of the Spiral Light that he heads.
"Any kind of religion is good," Peck said, explaining that her opposition isn't against Wiccan itself. "I just have a problem with people trying to shove their religion in my face."
"We are up in arms over this," neighbor Julie Raslavsky said. "The whole thing is inappropriate."
There have been several ceremonies held at the house in the past few years, including last Halloween, Peck said, and another is scheduled for Sunday. According to a notice posted on witchvox.com, the Coven of the Spiral Light will hold a Public Mabon Ritual to celebrate the Autumnal Equinox, or Witches Thanksgiving, Sunday at noon at the home.
Many of the ceremonies involve people dressed in black robes, she said, and for one ceremony a sign was posted at the intersection of Greenfield and Booth Hill Road inviting the public to attend.
"The house is on less than an acre -- that's not a lot of land," Peck said. "As it is, we think the house is too big for the lot."
There used to be a smaller ranch on the property that belonged to Schmidt's father. After the elder Schmidt died his son inherited the land and tore down the ranch to build a larger colonial, which is not yet completed.
Even before the shell of the house was built, Schmidt was holding ceremonies there, Peck said. "They had one when there was nothing there but a hole in the ground," she said. "I believe he is trying to make his house a temple, and I would never have bought this house if I thought there was going to be a temple next door."
"They're being devious and we don't trust them," Raslavsky said. "They want these ramps and a big porch and wheelchair access and we think it's not being used as a residence -- we think it's going to be used as a temple for gatherings."
"We feel they are trying to make it ADA compliant so they can turn it into a church down the road," said Greenfield Drive resident John Gates. "This is a great concern to all of us."
Churches are allowed by right in residential zones, Zoning Administrator Rick Schultz said. "What we would have to look at is parking," he said. But there has been no application for any kind of church activity there, he said.
Having people over to a home doesn't necessarily make it a regulatable activity, Schultz said, but if it were to be used as a church, it would be.
"There is a difference between people meeting at a home as a group and an assembly as a church activity," he said. In that case, in addition to zoning issues, there would be issues concerning the fire marshal and the Building Department, he said.
Schmidt referred comment to his attorney, Alan Tyma, who said the only issue at hand is whether his client should be granted the variance to build the porch.
"He doesn't want any issues with the neighbors," Tyma said. "From our perspective, the house was built and designed as ADA compliant" so the variance is necessary. He declined to say whether anyone living in the house is disabled, but at a prior ZBA meeting Schmidt's companion told the board that she works with disabled people who she would occasionally bring to the home.
Tyma also said he couldn't comment on the neighbor's concerns over Schmidt's use of the property for religious reasons. "That's not the proposed use," he said. "It's not what the neighbors are thinking, and apparently the issues they have raised have nothing to do with the porch.
"Bob is looking to be a good neighbor," he said. "They will perceive what they want to perceive, but the issue is simply whether or not a designed porch for the ADA-compliant house can go up."
"If you have an assembly, you have to have places to park," he said. And if they are going to hold any ceremonies outside under tents, that too would require zoning permission, he said. "They can do whatever they want in the house, but if it's outside they need to come in front of us."
It would not be the commission's intention to stop them from assembling there, Pagoda said, but only that all of the zoning regulations are followed.
"Live and let live," he said, "as long as they obey the rules."
In the more than two decades he has sat on the commission, he can't remember a similar situation cropping up, Commissioner Leon J. Sylvester said.
There are many churches located in residential neighborhoods, but they are on sites large enough to accommodate them, Sylvester said.
"I would question whether they have the right to call that meeting in a residential zone," he said of Sunday's ceremony. "This is not a function of a home; this is a function of an outside group."
Advertising the event expands its potential attendance, he said. "That's inviting potentially anybody -- that could literally bring hundreds of people there, which would disrupt the neighborhood," he said. "Common sense tells me no -- I would question it seriously."