Documents Show That Grace Farms Planned Wide-Ranging, Robust Uses for Site While Seeking P&Z Approval for Strictly Religious Activities


A founder of Grace Farms appears to have soft-pedaled plans for its sprawling northern New Canaan property to town officials during the approval process, while the organization’s own incorporating documents—already drafted—called for far more robust activity than what was presented, according to a review of public hearings and documents obtained by

Bob Prince during a late-2012 public hearing—at the time Grace Farms was seeking approval for its now heavily used campus—told members of the Planning & Zoning Commission on Dec. 18, 2012 that Grace Farms is designed “to further mission of our church.”

Pressed on the size of activities at Grace Farms, Prince told commissioners that the biggest activity there would occur during regular Sunday morning church services.

“Otherwise, most of the activities are kind of like of 10 people or 20 people getting together and having some sort of meeting,” Prince said (see video embedded below). “That is common, just like any other church—Alcoholics Anonymous or whatever—I mean, it’s just a small group of people that gets together on a regular basis.”

Yet a section within Grace Farms Foundation’s own Certificate of Incorporation—state filings for nonprofits that sometimes are called “Articles of Incorporation”—describes a varied and dynamic range of activities.

Under a section titled ‘Purposes,’ Article III of the Grace Farms Foundation’s Certificate of Incorporation said activities may include “sponsoring, conducting and supporting conferences, seminars, discussion groups, lectures and other programs to educate the general public about and raise public awareness of faith and the reconciliation of faith, philosophy and science, social justice movements, the arts and culture”; “sponsoring and supporting artistic and cultural activities, including, without limitation, workshops and performances in the areas of music, dance, theatre, and fine arts workshops, lectures and seminars, in order to educate and enrich the general public and the local community”; and cooperating with other charitable organizations whether local, national, or international, for any of the foregoing purposes.”

Those activities—according to a concerned neighbor who in a letter to the town dated Dec. 17, 2012 (the day before the public hearing cited above) supplied the language of the Certificate of Incorporation—“go far beyond those activities that are typically held by a local New Canaan church.”

The question of whether and to what extent Grace Farms has run afoul of permitted uses at its site has emerged as a central issue facing P&Z, following concerns voiced at public meetings by neighbors after the organization opened to the public last fall.

Speaking to activities at Grace, town officials to this point have referred at public hearings to ways that the plans there may have “evolved” in the two-plus years between the time its River building received approval and the campus opened.

Asked for a comment from Grace Farms regarding what appear to be discrepancies between the activities as described at the December 2012 public hearing and the organization’s incorporating document, Grace President Sharon Prince issued this statement to “Grace Farms Foundation looks forward to responding to any concerns before the Planning and Zoning Commission. We respect that the Planning & Zoning hearing is the appropriate forum to discuss these issues.”

P&Z is expected to take up the matter of Grace Farms at its Sept. 27 meeting.

What follows is a timeline that tracks some of the major developments in the history of Grace Farms. Where specific meetings before P&Z or other municipal bodies are mentioned, we’ve included links to meeting minutes:

  • Nov. 27, 2007 and May 20, 2008: P&Z grants a special permit and amended special permit that would allow Grace Property Holdings LLC to use the property for religious purposes, including with a permanent sanctuary whose capacity is limited at 900 people.
  • July 31, 2008: Grace Property Holdings LLC acquires a 48-acre parcel at 365 Lukes Wood Road for $30 million
  • 2009: Grace Farms Foundation is formed as a charitable trust following an IRS filing.
  • Dec. 20, 2009: Grace Farms Foundation Inc. purchases a contiguous 26.8-acre Lukes Wood Road property for $10 million
  • Oct. 23, 2012: At a public hearing before P&Z, Sharon Prince said that the organization “had used the past four years to crystallize” its vision. She noted that neighbors have expressed design concerns. What would become the River building is introduced. A neighbor told P&Z that the church’s membership has grown and that the new structures’ design “is radically different” to what had been presented in 2007.
  • Nov. 27, 2012: Grace during a public hearing before P&Z seeks approval of specific design to build a 716-seat sanctuary. During that hearing an attorney for Grace said that the church “is looking to provide a permanent home for its members and that they are not asking for anything more than any other religious organization.” The attorney added: “They may hold an occasional meeting on a given Tuesday night in the sanctuary and will light up only the one room they are using.” At that same hearing, Town Attorney Ira Bloom, citing neighbors’ concerns, suggested that P&Z “investigate whether or not the scope of activities have changed.”
  • Dec. 18, 2012: Bob Prince, a founder of Grace, during a public hearing before P&Z underscores that Grace Farms Foundation is an extension of the church and that Grace Farms itself is designed “to further the mission of our church.” He said: “There is a continuity of purpose between the vision for our church and the Grace Farms project,” adding that the property would be used “for religious services and ancillary activities related to a church.”
  • Jan. 29, 2013: A neighbor during a public hearing before P&Z asked that if the commission approves Grace’s application it includes conditions that 1. The property cannot be used as a community center or public park, and 2. No part of the property can be used for philanthropic purposes by the Foundation without a Special Permit. The neighbor reiterated his previous position that church’s increase in membership since the original approval requires a new traffic study. P&Z closes the public hearing.
  • Feb. 26, 2013: Then chairman of P&Z Laszlo Papp during a discussion of Grace Farms at a public hearing identified the following “threshold issues” in its approval, including: “Need to address the relationship between the foundation and the church, including foundation activities on the property”; “Need to decide if the ancillary activities of the church are usual and customary activities of a church” and “Need to understand the intensity of church and foundation activities on the property and whether there is a need to control them.”
  • March 26, 2013: P&Z during a public hearing unanimously approved the amended special permit for Grace, with conditions speciyfing that “there shall be no renting or use of any portion of the property including any building or the athletic field to outside commercial or for-profit organizations.” The conditions also said: “While the Commission acknowledges that as part of its religious mission, the Applicant, among other activities, pursues interfaith meetings and charitable initiatives, the use of the property for multi-organizational conferences and/or usage as a conference center is not part of this approval. The proposed gymnasium and athletic field shall be incidental and accessory to individuals and activities related to the Applicant and shall not be rented or used by outside organizations without the approval of the Commission.”
  • May 2013: Two lawsuits are filed following the approval, both naming P&Z as well as Grace Farms as defendants. A court rules in favor of the defendants—in one case a group of neighbors’ suit is dismissed in April 2014, and in the case of a second suit from a single neighbor in South Salem, N.Y., an appeal of the civil court’s decision is withdrawn in October 2014.
  • September 2013: Building permits are issued and construction gets underway for barns and series of pavilions connected by roof, come to be known as the River building.
  • October 2015: Grace Farms opens to the public. Within the required 15 days, one neighbor files an appeal to the new structure’s Certificate of Occupancy.
  • March 7, 2016: Zoning Board of Appeals hears from neighbor and Grace Farms’ representatives regarding the CO.
  • May 2, 2016: ZBA denies the appeal yet question arises about whether Grace is in its activities is running afoul of permitted uses.
  • May 31, 2016: P&Z requests that the town planner investigate whether Grace is violating the conditions of its approval.
  • June 10, 2016: A neighbor of Grace in New Canaan files a civil lawsuit naming the organization as well as Sharon Prince as defendants, regarding what the plaintiff calls violations of state environmental laws that are affecting wetlands on the resident’s property.
  • June 16, 2016: Grace officials meet with neighbors at New Canaan Library. According to meeting minutes from the neighbors, it’s a strained, awkward meeting where nothing is resolved. The president of Grace, who did not attend, said later that it was “a very good meeting,” adding that the organization 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.”
  • June 24, 2016: The town planner notifies Grace Farms through a letter (embedded as a PDF below) that he finds “some of the uses occurring at the site have indeed exceeded some of the special permit conditions granted in March, 2013.”
  • June 28, 2016: P&Z voices support for the town planner’s letter and opens the prospect that Grace Farms will return to the group with an application for a new or modified special permit at its planned Sept. 27 meeting.

Planning & Zoning 12-18-12 from NCTV 79 on Vimeo.




8 thoughts on “Documents Show That Grace Farms Planned Wide-Ranging, Robust Uses for Site While Seeking P&Z Approval for Strictly Religious Activities

  1. Thank you for this first objective review of the true recorded and written facts before the P&Z for nine years. It is ironic that in the video attached to this article, the P&Z properly and wonderfully asks for a moment of silence for the Newtown atrocity victims, but over a number of years has utterly failed to address the potential security risks and other hazards created for neighbors (simple taxpayers who bought their residential homes next to a horse farm) and townspeople by their own failure to enforce the obvious radical deviations from their own special permit. Nor has P&Z or our town officials addressed the environmental and other long term fiscal demands placed on the town, the water table, the roads and resources, due to an obvious and huge creeping use beyond the “church’s” own repeated representations made on the record. We, P&Z, and the town were assured this was going to be a church with ancillary use of a church. What we have got now is a foundation complex with increasing traffic, footpaths near our properties, sound sculpture, a restaurant, concerts, and much more, with constant lighting and traffic — and P&Z has put private taxpayers on the defensive, forcing them to do what is the town’s job in the first place. All of us want to do good. We all support good causes. But is doing good based on a false record, and failing to take the risks and costs into account, fair? Or is it just reckless?

  2. Letter To The Editor
    Grace Farms: Let’s Get This Right

    Grace Farms is a New Canaan treasure, so it’s in our interest as citizens to speak out in the face of questionable analysis of its activities.

    Contrary to today’s headline, Grace Farms has openly stated its mission to use the property for “religious services and ancillary activities related to a church.” It didn’t promise “strictly religious activities,” a much narrower concept. Few if any churches could or would operate under this narrow standard, and no community should want them to. For example, Boy Scouts troops are sponsored exclusively by local churches, which host dozens of other non-religious activities.

    Mr. Dinan’s article refers to the Grace Farms property as “sprawling,” which defines as “stretched or spread out in an unnatural or ungraceful manner.” He must know that the project has been featured in Architectural Review and at the Museum of Modern Art, and is a candidate for at least one major architectural reward.

    Town Planner Steve Kleppen erroneously cites Grace Farms’ practice of charging fees for certain classes and services as suggestive of a “for-profit connection.” Actually, charging fees is not at all inconsistent with non-profit status, and in fact is widely prevalent in classic church organizations (e.g., bookstores and enrollment fees for classes, trips, and retreats.) The church in which I was raised featured a large vegetarian cafeteria at its headquarters campus that charged modest fees; without it, there would have been nowhere else for visitors to eat.

    Kleppen also cites a two-day Child Trafficking Symposium as problematic. If that’s a violation, I’d have a greater problem with local law than with the judgment of Grace Community Church.

    Having watched the video of the December 2012 P&Z hearing, I agree that Bob Prince didn’t accurately describe the scope of future activities of Grace Farms. As a result, maybe a new permit application is needed to ensure that P&Z acts with full knowledge. But if the P&Z imposes conditions, they should be based on things like lighting or noise, etc. P&Z certainly should not get into the business of defining how much community service a church should or should not provide.

    For the record, I am not connected with Grace Farms or Grace Community Church, though I have some good friends who are. I’m simply a member of the New Canaan community, which I think should be more appreciative of the contribution these organizations make.

    • Thanks, Tom: I agree with much of you say here. ‘Church-Related’ may have been a better choice for the headline than ‘Strictly Religious.’ I’ve been to Grace Farms and, personally, find it to be striking—the property itself and the River building. I’m using the word ‘sprawling’ here only to describe something that extends across a large area ( I also agree with your comments about the contributions of well-meaning local organizations.

      As Paul notes above, those considerations are not central to the question now facing P&Z. One way to frame that question is this: Did Grace Farms win approval for its buildings and campus on the strength of what Mr. Prince, the organization’s attorneys and others told the commission regarding activities planned for the site? It’s a question whose answer has more weight for some—such as the immediate neighbors, “good friends” you mention and nonprofit organizations in New Canaan that face P&Z rather squarely in making applications or with respect to special events—than others, such as you or me. As noted in the article, one explanation that’s emerged for the discrepancy between the permitted and actual uses at Grace is that plans for the site “evolved” over time. And at a glance that would make sense, given that nearly three years elapsed between the P&Z approval for the Grace Farms campus as we know it, and the actual public opening.

      So, to then come across a state filing that predates the December 2012 hearing and spells out a far more robust program than what had been conveyed to municipal officials—it is noteworthy, given the central question above, and newsworthy. The timeline is designed to provide context to this larger question of “What will happen at Grace Farms?” that loomed over the application and now looms over the organization.

      Your comment regarding specific conditions that P&Z might place on a new or amended permit is interesting. It would represent a break with precedent for P&Z to limit its conditions in the ways you are suggesting (lighting and noise), especially given that the neighbors’ concerns center not around individual types of events—though there may be some (Tai Chi instruction, cooking classes, barbecues) that would seem to render moot the distinction between “strictly religious” and “church-related” because they appear to go beyond both—but their intensity. That is to say, their size and frequency. I’m not sure whether pointing to and defending a single type of event held or scheduled at Grace Farms fully captures the neighbors’ major concern of intensity of use, regardless of whether that event falls within the rather catch-all category (from a zoning perspective), of “nature-arts-justice-community-faith.”

      Unless you feel that Grace Farms deserves special consideration that other nonprofit organizations are not afforded? Consider, for example, a recent application to P&Z from the Philip Johnson Glass House (also located on a large parcel and in a residential zone) to raise the baseline headcount allowed on the property and extend the hours during which people can visit. The application also called for an increase in the headcount at the organization’s lone annual fundraiser from 250 to 400. After a series of public hearings, the Glass House’s operating permit was modified.

      Grace Farms, a group of neighbors noted in letters to P&Z—though it has only its original permit—operates a restaurant, hosts movie screenings, art studios, workshops, concerts, teas and symposiums. I wonder whether your phrasing—”Bob Prince didn’t accurately describe the scope of future activities”—fully captures the transgression.

      At the very least, P&Z precedent dictates that conditions would restrict the size and frequency of such events, if they’re allowed at all, and prompt Grace Farms to seek permission from the town zoning enforcement officer to host them, one event at a time.

      Finally, you should know that, as always, I informed Grace officials of exactly what this article was addressing and reached out well ahead of publishing the story to include anything they wanted to say, then published the organization’s comment in full. Thank you again.

  3. Is P&Z Consistent in their Rulings?

    One could argue that Philip Johnson’s Glass House property is a “church” of sorts … if that is the case, then why does NC P&Z tie their hands so strictly (# of events, participants, sound, etc.) when they seem to be so much looser about Grace Farms?

    • To answer your question: I see no reason to believe that P&Z plans to treat the two differently. Under the Zoning Regulations, a church is a “religious institution” and so it falls into the same general category of “institutional use” as The Glass House, YMCA, St. Luke’s School, Silvermine Arts Center and Silver Hill Hospital. Here’s a much shorter timeline: Grace opened, began operating and the intensity of its activities has been flagged. Now, Grace has agreed to come back with an application for a new or amended permit, and P&Z is expected to condition that permit. The best example of concerned neighbors working collaboratively with an institution that is seeking approvals from P&Z through a special permit application is probably Silver Hill, and the recently formed Silvermine River Neighborhood Association.

  4. Michael, thanks for your thoughtful response to my post. Here are a few comments: Certainly, the intensity of a property’s use is an appropriate concern for P&Z, but how they approach that concern is key. Regulating intensity is fine, but it’s not OK for the government to determine which community service functions are appropriate for a church to conduct. So, let’s take into account the neighbors’ rights to the peaceful enjoyment of their property. But let’s also take into account freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and the fact that Grace Farms serves the interests of the broader community. Following precedent is important, but so is creating it. I don’t diminish your concern about a possible “transgression,” but it would be counter-productive for folks to use it as justification for curtailing Grace Farms’ good and useful services.

    • This is not the point. “But let’s also take into account freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and the fact that Grace Farms serves the interests of the broader community.” None of these rights are being infringed upon and are a weak way to argue this case. Grace Church serves itself.
      Being a church does not give you the right to mislead the town about your intentions for the property and host events outside the regulations of the town. I’m sure St Mark’s would love to hold non-permit concerts on their lawn or that First Presbyterian would like to host massive seminars on international issues but they can’t without having to get approval for each event.
      Grace Church can’t hide behind a religious curtain with hopes of skirting the law. They are bringing in untold amounts of money, paying almost nothing in taxes and are a drain on the community and a nightmare for their neighbors. Town leaders need to stop fearing a religious organization and force Grace Church to conform to the laws of the town.

  5. I’m not sure that any church in town hosts as many events for such large numbers of groups as Grace Farms does.

    I think that the church is striving to be ‘famous’ with its building and architecture. It’s a beautiful place, but it’s not in a location that can support so many cars and people. It is disturbing to many neighbors (and not just the ones surrounding the property–many on Luke’s Wood Road are upset and affected) and doesn’t that count for something anymore?

    They have had hundreds of events there; some of them galas with hundreds of people/cars/etc. Not all of them are totally necessary…I mean, the NC Country School couldn’t have their big gala fundraiser at a country club or even on their own property with a tent? It isn’t right, I hope that the town doesn’t give them free reign to do as they please. Regardless of whether they are ‘doing good’ or not, there is no other church in town with as many activities as GF. A once per year Fair at St. Mark’s doesn’t count as a rebuttal.

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