Grace Farms Withdraws Re-Filed Permit Application, Opening Questions About Long-Term Operation

An attorney on behalf of Grace Farms this week withdrew the organization’s re-filed application for a special permit.

In a short letter to the town planner dated Feb. 5, attorney Ted O’Hanlon of Stamford-based Robinson+Cole said that Grace Farms looks forward “to working with you on the implementation and enforcement” of an existing special permit, approved last fall by the Planning & Zoning Commission with 100-plus conditions.

Coming on the heels of a contentious P&Z hearing where several neighbors complained that Grace Farms already has violated that existing permit in many ways, the withdrawal raises new questions about just what set of rules the Lukes Wood Road organization will operate under in the long term.

According to a lawsuit filed by neighbors Timothy Curt and Dona Bissonnette of Smith Ridge Road, the post-hearing legal notices of P&Z’s decision last year were “defective, incomplete and misleading” and also failed to meet the requirements of state law and the town’s own zoning regulations. P&Z also failed to file a copy of the regulation change with the Town Clerk prior to the effective date of the amended regulation, according to the complaint.

Grace had re-filed its applications both for an amended special permit and changes to the New Canaan Zoning Regulations at the request of Town Attorney Ira Bloom, in order to address those very claims.

Now, should the Superior Court rule in favor of the appeal, it isn’t clear whether the September 2017 approval would hold or whether Grace Farms would operate under the special permit that preceded it (approved in early-2013).

Also, though P&Z at its Jan. 30 meeting approved a re-filed application for changes to the Zoning Regulations, it isn’t clear whether Grace Farms in holding a special permit that suddenly predates those text changes can be said to avail itself of the updates spelled out in them (for example, for multiple principal uses).

It isn’t clear where Grace stands on those issues or whether it plans to re-file again. The organization through spokespeople put out this statement: “After careful consideration, and recognizing the hard work and analysis already invested in good faith by the Commission and its staff culminating in the Special Permit approved on September 26th, Grace Farms Foundation has decided to withdraw the Application for Special Permit, dated November 21, 2017, to avoid any further unnecessary deliberations on this matter and to allow the Commission the courtesy of managing its agenda at the next meeting.”

At a special meeting of P&Z on Jan. 16, neighbors critical of Grace Farms pointed to “ongoing enforcement issues” on the town’s part, saying that the organization has failed to comply with the conditions of P&Z’s approval from September.

Attorney Amy Souchuns of Milford-based Hurwitz, Sagarin, Slossberg & Knuff—representing neighbors of Grace Farms including Jennifer Holme and David Markatos—said at hearing: “My clients should not be responsible for ensuring that Grace Farms comply with the terms of their permit. There is no obligation for that. The requirement that my clients contact Grace Farms, contact the town planner every time there is a violation makes them a de facto zoning enforcement officer. And part of the issue and why we continue to be here, and I think it’s true of all the neighbors, is that they do not want to do that and we have no legal obligation to do that. It is unreasonable to expect that the neighbors are going to enforce the conditions.”

Holme, on hearing the news of the withdrawal of the re-filed application, said, “Unfortunately for the Foundation, the cart does not come before the horse.”

“A subsequent January 2018 text amendment allowing multiple principal uses in New Canaan’s residence zones cannot serve as the basis for the Commission’s September 2017 approval allowing the Foundation to operate three principal uses at Grace Farms. That September 2017 approval was predicated on a July 2017 text amendment with procedural defects. And once the July 2017 text amendment is voided in court, the September 2017 approval will suffer the same fate. When the legal dust settles, only the 2013 approval for a “Religious Institution” use at Grace Farms will remain standing. The record is now clear that since opening Grace Farms in October 2015, the Foundation has been operating without the necessary zoning approvals. Why are New Canaan taxpayers having to fund this continuing legal charade with an applicant that refuses to come into compliance with clear zoning rules?”

Grace Farms also has appealed to the courts some of the conditions P&Z’s September approval, saying its rights as a religious institution are being violated. It isn’t clear how much of what Grace is seeking through that legal process mirrors the changes it had been seeking in its re-filed application.

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