The town of New Canaan failed to comply with state sunshine law when it took more than two months to deliver a public document to a resident who had asked for it, officials said. According to an attorney with the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, “there is no reason why” the town should’ve taken until Nov. 7 to hand over a 15-page document that the Planning & Zoning Commission had discussed at a public meeting on Aug. 29. The document, revised extensively at that August meeting, spelled out in a draft the conditions of approval that P&Z was considering for Grace Farms’s application for an amended permit.
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.
Saying its rights as a religious organization are being violated, Grace Farms on Friday sued the town in connection with conditions included in recent approvals from the Planning & Zoning Commission. The Grace Farms Foundation “is statutorily and classically aggrieved” by P&Z’s Sept. 26 heavily conditioned approval of its application to amend its zoning permit and is appealing the town’s decision because it is “specially and injuriously affected,” according to a lawsuit filed on behalf of the Lukes Wood Road organization by Attorney Diana Neeves of Stamford-based Robinson + Cole. “The Resolution is illegal, arbitrary, capricious and constitutes an abuse of discretion for a variety of reasons,” including that it “imposes conditions on activities and events of the [Grace Farms] Foundation that are not reasonably supported by substantial evidence in the record before the Commission about the [Grace Farms] Foundation’s operations and how they protect the health and safety of visitors and the neighborhood,” according to the lawsuit, filed in state Superior Court and received Oct. 20 in the New Canaan Town Clerk’s office.
Grace Farms may not host revenue-generating events, must remove the “sound sculpture” from a pond on its property and may not advertise its food service establishment as a standalone amenity, according to conditions now under consideration by the town as part of the organization’s closely followed application. At the same time, the Lukes Wood Road facility may expand the operating hours of its “Commons” cafeteria, as well as its “Tea Room,” may sell books, souvenirs and other items, can let outside groups use its gym and may continue as a religious organization while also calling itself a club or philanthropic agency, under some of the 25 findings and 99 conditions now in draft form before the Planning & Zoning Commission. P&Z is scheduled to take up the application, again, at its regular 7 p.m. meeting Tuesday at Town Hall. Commissioners in their deliberations since closing the public hearing on Grace Farms have said that the organization is unlike any that’s come before P&Z in the past. That said, if approved, the revised permit expected to set a new standard for what’s allowable with respect to institutional uses in residential zones in town.
Grace Farms last week conceded a key legal point in its long-running bid to secure permission for robust and varied activities at its Lukes Wood Road campus. Attorneys on behalf of Grace Farms have argued that the organization is allowed to operate not only as a religious institution, as defined in the New Canaan Zoning Regulations and as approved four years ago, but—with approval from the Planning & Zoning Commission—as a club/organization and philanthropic/charitable agency, too. Gaining those new “use designations” formed the major goal of an application filed in September on behalf of Grace Farms by attorneys with Stamford-based Robinson & Cole. Yet lawyers retained by neighbors—concerned since Grace Farms opened to the public in October 2015 about what’s actually happening there, as opposed to what had been described during public hearings—successfully argued that the regulations do not allow for more than one “principal use” at Grace Farms.
That has forced the organization now to withdraw its full application with P&Z and first pursue a text change to those regulations. Neighbors Jennifer Holme and David Markatos, who are represented by attorney Amy Souchuns of Milford-based Hurwitz, Sagarin, Slossberg & Knuff LLC, told NewCanaanite.com that they are “pleased to see that the town has finally recognized that having multiple principal uses in the 4-acre, lowest density residential zone is in direct contravention of not only New Canaan’s zoning regulations and special permit criteria but also the Plan of Conservation and Development.”
The Smith Ridge Road residents noted that in an April 21 report Donald Poland, a planning consultant at New York City-based Goman+York, found that the number of principal uses Grace Farms actually is seeking is seven: foundation, church, club, restaurant, commercial conference center, public park and office building.