Dispute Between Grace Farms, Neighbors Centers on Use of ‘Operations Center’ Building

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A former municipal employee erred in signing off on a zoning permit for Grace Farms that has allowed for a violation of approved uses at the organization’s Lukes Wood Road campus, according to an appeal now before the town.

Former interim Town Planner Keisha Fink in April 2018 approved a zoning permit for an interior renovation at the Grace Farms “Operations Center,” a former residential dwelling just inside the gate to the complex that is to be used only for security and other administrative operations for the property, as well as an accessory apartment.

Yet Fink made mistakes in filling out her portion of the zoning permit application form itself, according to an appeal filed on behalf of Grace Farms neighbors Jennifer Holme and David Markatos, and the renovation that followed apparently “was undertaken to provide offices for a recently formed nonprofit corporation, Unchain Foundation, that is operating at Grace Farms.”

“Even though the [Planning & Zoning] Commission has not approved Unchain as an additional principal use at Grace Farms, Unchain recently activated its programming, hosting three separate events at Grace Farms in May and June 2019,” according to a July 24 appeal filed by attorney Amy Souchuns of Stamford-based Hurwitz Sagarin Slossberg & Knuff LLC 

In activity reports that Grace Farms is required to file with the town, the Unchain events are listed as generic ‘justice events’ implicitly attributed to Grace Farms itself, according to the appeal. Such an expanded use should have required formal P&Z approval, not Fink’s administrative sign-off, the appeal said. 

The Zoning Board of Appeals opened the appeal at its Sept. 9 meeting and is expected to take it up again during a regular meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday. 

Though zoning officials, after consulting with town counsel, say the appeal appears to be limited by state law to the Fink-issued permit—and not the building permit and Certificate of Occupancy for the “safety building” that followed—they also appear to concede that Fink made mistakes. As Markatos and Holme noted in their appeal, Fink answered ‘no’ on the zoning permit form to questions about whether there’s a special permit associated with Grace Farms and regarding the organization’s proximity to another municipality, when the answer should have been ‘yes.’

Fink became interim town planner in late-2017 after Steve Palmer stepped down from the full-time position, and remained in the job for about one year, prior to the hiring of Town Planner Lynn Brooks Avni.

In a pre-ZBA meeting memo, Brooks Avni noted that “there has been significant turnover in the position of Town Planner in the last several years.”

“[W]hile I was not the Town Planner who signed off on the Zoning Permit in question, I have reviewed the record and come to the conclusion that I believe my predecessor must have reached to sign off on the Zoning Permit,” Brooks Avni said.

According to an attorney for Grace Farms, Ted O’Hanlan of Stamford-based Robinson+Cole, whatever mistakes Fink may have made do not legally obligate the organization to provide an explanation. 

“But any such mistakes are surely not material,” O’Hanlan said in an Oct. 4 letter to ZBA Chair Laura Edmonds, since “[t]he work itself was minor in nature” and “entirely within the structure of the Operations Center.” The work also is authorized under the existing Special Permit that P&Z issued two years ago, he said.

O’Hanlan denied outright that Unchain has been operating out of the building.

“Appellants offer nothing but speculation, exaggeration, and mischaracterization, using documents and events entirely unrelated to the building permit application at issue, to build an inaccurate claim about Unchain Foundation being physically present on the Grace Farms site, in violation of the 2017 Special Permit,” O’Hanlan wrote in the letter. 

Referring to a timeline presented by Souchuns that appears to show how the formal incorporation of Unchain Foundation appears to sync up with Grace Farms’s efforts to renovate the building, O’Hanlan wrote, “This effort, summarized on the ‘Timeline,’ is defective for the logical fallacy of ‘mistaking causation for correlation.’ ”

“Yes, certain events happened concurrently,” he said. “But Appellants provide no evidence to contradict Grace Farms’ position: No Unchain employees, no activities, no deliveries, no signs—nothing. Such groundless speculation and disbelief of Grace Farms’ stated purpose in remodeling the Operations Center does not constitute evidence.”

The timeline includes a note that Fink emailed P&Z Chair John Goodwin and Secretary Jean Grzelecki on April 3, 2018—one day prior to missing the zoning permit—inquiring whether Grace Farms’s proposed building permit application would a condition of approval that “There shall be no material change of the approved use or intensification of any use unless specifically authorized herein.”

Fink’s email, which also went to Town Attorney Ira Bloom, notes that the proposed renovations include converting a garage into two office spaces and creating two more office spaces in the building to allow for a total of 23 employees there.

“Question: Would the Commission deem the addition of 4 new office spaces an intensification of use?” Fink wrote.

The email appears to have gone unanswered.

According to O’Hanlan, that only “validates her [Fink’s] decision the next day to sign the zoning permit, not the converse, as suggested by the Appellants.”

“That the permit was issued after the question was raised in writing shows thoughtful analysis, meaning staff doing its job by considering all issues. Town counsel and Ms. Brooks-Avni will confirm that, while staff is always free to ask questions of P&Z members, staff are under no duty to do so, nor is there any obligation from P&Z members to reply. In sum, Grace Farms respectfully suits that P&Z should consider this appeal in the context of the act that is challenged.”

Grace Farms since opening to the public in four years ago has faced criticism from neighbors that the organization misled the town about its true plans for the site and that it’s violated land use-related approvals and regulations. In the summer of 2016, the then-town planner voiced concerns that non-permitted uses at Grace Farms had “taken over” the site, a sentiment later echoed by Palmer. That led to a new series of public hearings and P&Z approval that both neighbors and Grace Farms contested in court. 

“Where does this stop?” O’Hanlan said in his letter. “Should ZBA provide yet another forum for Appellants for their generation opposition to Grace Farms, when P&Z, with its greater knowledge, has declined to hear the very same allegations? … In sum, Appellants theory begs credulity; it makes no sense that Grace Farms, having worked so hard for the 2017 Special Permit, would blatantly violate its terms. None of the tax or other information and events selectively and inaccurately provided by Appellants in their Sept. 27th timeline refutes the basic truth of Grace Farms’ explanation for the Operations Center renovation, as set for above. Respectfully, Grace Farms urges the ZBA not to lend its good offices to dignify Appellants’ flawed appeal and litigious agenda.”

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