Bested in Legal Arguments, Attorneys for Grace Farms Now Pursue Changes to Zoning Regulations

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.

“We trust that the town planner will now enforce the 2013 special permit approval for a religious institution, and direct the [Grace Farms] Foundation to adhere to the current zoning regulations in any re-filed application,” Holme and Markatos said.

They continued: “Should the [Grace Farms] Foundation apply for a text amendment to those regulations, the commissioners should deny any amendment that would effectively constitute spot zoning and fundamentally alter the town’s zoning rules for the sole benefit of an applicant. Any proposed text amendment to the zoning regulations that would allow for multiple principal uses at Grace Farms, is just an end-run around New Canaan’s established zoning framework, and would be unprecedented. It would also embolden other institutions embedded in the town’s residential zones—be it the Glass House, Silver Hill Hospital, St. Luke’s School, Country Club, Silvermine Arts Center, YMCA, Field Club or Country Day School—with their own history of institutional creep and neighborhood relation issues, to seek to further intensify the use of their own respective properties. We hope that the [Grace Farms] Foundation follows the rules and comes back to the commission with a revamped application for only one principal use activity at Grace Farms and narrowly tailored accessory uses to that principal use.”

Grace Farms’ now-withdrawn application—its second, after pulling the September filing in January—was to have been heard next week by P&Z.

The additional text amendment application likely will lengthen the number of P&Z meetings required to reach a consensus regarding Grace Farms’ future. The organization currently is operating beyond what’s allowed there, according to both neighbors and town officials, who as recently as January, cited “outstanding violations” of its existing permit.

It isn’t clear how much of a setback it is for Grace Farms to need to change the New Canaan Zoning Regulations in order to accommodate the organization’s plans.

In a prepared statement sent by email, a spokesperson for Grace Farms said: “The Grace Farms Foundation application will be heard at the May 30th P+Z meeting. Counsel for the Commission has recommended that the Foundation withdraw its application, without prejudice, and resubmit it with a request for a change to the text of the existing Zoning Regulations to allow more than one principal special permit use on a single parcel, as a means of streamlining the issues to be decided by the Commission. The Foundation has agreed to do this, in order for the public hearing not to be distracted from the important issues that the Commission has been asked to decide. It is anticipated that, while this will postpone the public hearing scheduled for April 25, 2017 to the Commission’s next regular meeting on May 30, 2017, it will still allow the Commission to hear and decide the Renewed Application within the same time period. We continue to be heartened by the public outpouring of support for our application and Grace Farms.”

A decision against Grace Farms on proposed text amendments would alter dramatically the organization’s ability to seek again just what it had laid out in the March 27 application.

There, the organization had proposed some tweaks to its operation that appeared to address some of the neighbors’ concerns—such as shorter hours and redirected footpaths—while seeking in other ways an even more robust operation than what had been sought in September.

For example, the original application would have limited Grace to four events per year with 700-plus attendees, while the organization is now seeking up to 12 such events (as well as 24 events with 300 to 700 people and 24 more with 25 to 300 people). The organization also in the March filing sought to amend the existing 2013 permit so that its conditions apply not only to the currently used 48-acre parcel that Grace owns on Lukes Wood Road, but also two additional, contiguous parcels totaling more than 30 acres.

Though Grace Farms under the heading “Adoption of Management & Operations Plan” lists several items that appear to address some of the neighbors’ concerns—such as “Neighbor Outreach Plan,” “Safety Protocols,” and “Site Management Through Parking Protocols”— an expanded section called “Neighbor Assistance Protocol” details only “regular contact with contiguous neighbors regarding key activities” and keeping those neighbors’ phone numbers at hand.

Attorney Amy Zabetakis of Darien-based Rucci Law Group, representing a set of neighbors, in an April 8 letter to P&Z said that Grace Farms failed to provide documentation that the commission had requested following hearings last year, including: a copy of the lease between Grace Farms Foundation and Grace Community Church—with an explanation of the legal relationship between the two and circumstances under which the lease could be revoked; a schedule of events for any entity proposing to use the property; and a summary of all commercial enterprises at Grace (such as the “The Commons,” an eatery).

“The Foundation and the numerous uses and activities currently taking place on the Grace Farms property are in violation of the existing Special Permit for the Property,” Zabetakis said in the letter. “The Applicant appears to have no interest in complying with the existing Special Permit or even curbing its activities to levels reasonable for a residential neighborhood.”

She also said that are “some areas where the Applicant has failed to even provide sufficient information for a fair analysis of the 2017 Application to proceed.”

For example, Zabetakis said, “No information has been provided for the commission to evaluate total attendance, including public visitors or staff attendance, and the information provided related to Events in the 2016 Application is now significantly outdated. The 2017 Application’s proposed self-imposed limits on participants at these Events are so high as to be essentially no limits at all.”

Zabetakis said that “as an entity conducting what amounts to a commercial enterprise in a residential zone,” Grace Farms “must be held to the same standards as every other applicant for a Special Permit use. The Foundation’s lack of response to specific requests previously identified by the Commission and its lack of transparency regarding its actual current use and attendance cannot be ignored.”

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