Despite concerns voiced by a Planning & Zoning Commission member who lives near The Glass House, the appointed body last week voted 4-2 to allow the organization to host a wedding this fall on its Ponus Ridge campus.
Dick Ward, a P&Z commissioner who lives on Winfield Lane, .3 miles from the National Trust for Historic Preservation site, said approval of the Oct. 4 wedding “would, in my opinion, create perhaps an unnecessary and perhaps dangerous precedent, on two levels.”
“One is it’s been our longtime practice that financial considerations are not a criteria to support a Special Permit or an amendment to a Special Permit,” Ward said during P&Z’s regular meeting, held Aug. 25 via videoconference. “And it’s pretty clear that the request is based on a financial concern and I don’t think we want to open that door. The second level, which is perhaps a legal concern, at least in my mind, is that with over the years, and this goes back to 1998, there have been a number of well-known amendments and revisions and requests, and we have gradually approved expansion on the events, the number of events, the timing of events, the season that events may take place, the number of people who can attend large functions. And those were gradually granted with a clear understanding that there would be no commercial activities. All of the events that have been approved are events that relate to architecture and the approved limited uses and features.”
Despite Ward’s concerns, the Commission voted in favor of allowing the wedding. Those voting in favor included Chair John Goodwin, Secretary Jean Grzelecki and Commissioners Krista Neilson and Dan Radman. Along with Ward, Commissioner John Kriz voted against.
Glass House Executive Director Greg Sages in presenting the organization’s application noted that “several neighbors have expressed concern about setting precedent by granting this request and have implied that we would be engaging in a commercial activity.”
“First of all, we have not used any of the four events for this season and really do not anticipate using any more for the tour season, other than this one,” he said. “We have not and will not hold ourselves out to the public as a venue for hire. We have no other requests in contemplation at this point and this event would actually be less impactful to the neighborhood than those that are already permitted for the special programmatic events. It will also provide a substantial economic benefit for The Glass House. Any of our neighbors in this residential zone could hold such an event in their yards, and some actually have.”
He added, “ One neighbor suggests finding outside donors in place of this type of event. We have always done so. But particularly in this environment, donors and foundations are favoring humanitarian not-for-profit enterprises.”
The Glass House simultaneously applied to extend through the tour season (to Dec. 15) a handful of special allowances from P&Z to help the organization operate amid COVID-19-related restrictions. The Commission approved the extension.
Goodwin by way of addressing Ward’s concerns said that “in a normal world” he would agree about The Glass House hosting a wedding.
“But this is not normal times,” Goodwin said. “This is arguably the most stressful economic event we will see in our lifetime. It can be made clear in any approval that the basis for approving the wedding has all to do with fact that we are in emergency conditions.”
Goodwin added that The Glass House was prevented this year from hosting its major fundraiser, The Summer Party, that it’s already had to cancel other programmatic events this year and that neighbors benefit from the site being able to maintain its 49-acre property.
Ward said in response that although “there is a lot of pain being felt” as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the Glass House “is one entity within the National Trust for Historic Preservation.”
“That is a federally chartered entity that controls a large number of properties and they have some very substantial endowment funds,” Ward said.
Repeating claims about The Glass House’s finances that he’s made in the past based Google searches—assertions that Sages has repeatedly denied—Ward said, “I don’t think we’ll see cracks in the glass.”
“I do not have a whole lot of sympathy for their financial concern,” he said.
Ward has tried, without success, to thwart The Glass House’s efforts in the past.
He faced criticism four years ago in speaking out when The Glass House sought to amend its Special Permit. Last summer, while referencing a New Canaanite editorial, Ward begrudgingly recused himself when The Glass House applied for additional changes. He was the only P&Z member to question the organization in May when it came before the Commission seeking operational allowances to navigate the pandemic.
During last week’s meeting, Radman noted that the size of the wedding (75 people) is “significantly smaller” than the annual Summer Party (500).
Kriz, a Ponus Ridge resident who voted with Ward, said P&Z should consider in granting the wedding request that the maximum number of attendees should include personnel such as caterers and that the figure cannot change even if the circumstances do—for example, “if victory is declared tomorrow over COVID, it’s still 75.”