Though Grace Farms intends to “work” planning officials regarding complaints that its varied, robust and non-religious activities violate what’s allowed at its 80-acre site, the organization is failing to collaborate in earnest with its own next-door neighbors, according to records of a meeting the two parties held this month.
Representatives from Grace at a June 16 meeting with the owners of six abutting properties said out loud that they wanted to understand the neighbors’ concerns, according to minutes of the meeting sent to the chairman of the Planning & Zoning Commission, as well as the town attorney, town planner and first selectman.
Yet, for example, when the neighbors “voiced concerns about the impact of the significant scale, intensity of use, and scope of Grace’s activities on their property values,” representatives from Grace responded “that they understood that Grace Farms was generally perceived as having a positive impact on New Canaan property values,” according to minutes of the meeting taken by a neighbor and sent June 20 to town officials.
“The neighbors noted that visitors to their properties have likened the view of Grace Farms to that of an industrial park or an airport, depending upon the time of day, and noted the detrimental impact of regular and virtually unrestricted use of Grace Farms on their safety, security and privacy, which have resulted in a material negative impact on the value and salability of their properties. The Grace representatives continued to emphasize their view that Grace Farms enhances general public perceptions of New Canaan and property value generally in New Canaan, as if the points we just raised relative to our specific properties—all of which directly abut Grace Farms—had not registered with them.”
The discussion also touched on a looming 2-story structure originally depicted as a “shed” in site plans, as well as noise, lighting, long hours and volume of visitors—concerns that Grace personnel previously had dismissed, according to the minutes, obtained by NewCanaanite.com, making it seem “disingenuous for them to be interested in acting like good neighbors now.”
Based on past dealings with people at Grace, “we had not been interacting with an organization whose ‘tone at the top’ was focused on being a good neighbor,” the minutes said.
Sharon Prince, president of Grace, did not attend the meeting and declined an interview with NewCanaanite.com regarding the neighbors’ concerns. Through a representative, she issued the following statement: “Grace Farms had a very good meeting with its neighbors, who provided some valuable comments for consideration.”
The characterization stands in stark contrast to what neighbors could glean from their meeting with Grace.
For example, on the subject of a “sound sculpture” that emits regular noise, the minutes say, a Grace representative asked whether it would be better if the sounds only came at certain times of the day or on weekends.
“He seemed disappointed when he was told that there is no time of day when a neighbor wants to be disturbed by the sounds of a two minute ballad/folk tune/chant that is audible from all parts of their property and repeated throughout the day,” the minutes said.
At the meeting, “the Grace representatives claimed not to appreciate even the most basic concerns that neighbors abutting Grace Farms might have regarding the significant deviation of their activities from what was originally described.”
What originally had been described, in 2012, was a vision under which the Grace property would be used “for religious services and ancillary activities related to a church.” Grace Farms was designed “to further the mission of our church,” Sharon Prince’s husband, Bob Prince, said at a public hearing in 2012 (see video embedded at bottom of article).
Yet last month, Town Planner Steve Kleppin noted during a Zoning Board of Appeals hearing on a separate matter that several neighbors had flagged activities at Grace that appeared to run afoul of its town-issued permit.
P&Z then tasked Kleppin with investigating what’s been happening at Grace, and in a letter issued Friday, he put Prince on notice that many of the neighbors’ claims were substantiated.
Kleppin’s findings—they’re non-binding, as P&Z wants Grace to get some information and have a chance to amend its existing permit or re-apply for a new one—also questions whether the organization was transparent in its representations to the town during multiple public hearings.
For example, Kleppin notes that a “use chart” shown at one hearing “outlines in broad terms the types of activities contemplated, but testimony provided to [P&Z] indicates the activities would be related to the church and its mission.”
Paid activities that are occurring at Grace, the neighbors note and Kleppin later underscores, include Tai Chi and cooking classes, “tea tours” and a cafeteria. Though one condition of Grace’s approval specifies that “the use of the property for multi-organizational conferences and/or usage as a conference center is not part of this approval.” Yet Grace has directly violated that condition, through a symposium held last fall and another, billed as “Modern House Day,” held last month.
Kleppin said it was “fair to question” whether some of Grace’s past and ongoing activities “are beyond what was represented to the commission during the hearings.”
It isn’t clear whether Grace intends to hold its position that the organization is complying with its permit, what changes if any are planned, whether the town planner’s findings—all in line with the neighbors’ original complaints—will finally prompt action on the part of Grace or whether the organization, already the defendant in a new lawsuit that claims it’s violated environmental laws, would go so far as to challenge P&Z in court should the town issue an order.
According to Sharon Prince’s statement, Grace in some cases “will be able to act on quickly” on the neighbors’ concerns, while “others will be addressed in our report to P&Z.”
“Given the request of P&Z for a report, we cannot discuss these issues more specifically at this time or in the press,” she said. “Grace Farms appreciates its neighbors’ willingness to meet and to share their views, and looks forward to further discussion and resolution of all concerns.”
At the end of their meeting with neighbors, the minutes say, “the Grace representatives noted that we would agree to disagree for now as to whether their operations are within the special permit and associated conditions, and that they were planning to ‘work the Planning and Zoning Commission.’ ”
P&Z is scheduled to take up the matter again deep into its regular meeting, which starts at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Town Hall.
Planning & Zoning 12-18-12 from NCTV 79 on Vimeo.