Grace Farms Seeks To Amend Operating Permit, Downplays Comments Made at Past Public Hearings


Seeking new zoning designations in hopes that they’ll allow for wide-ranging activities already occurring on its campus, Grace Farms on Monday filed an application to amend for the second time its town-issued operating permit.

Prepared by attorney Edward O’Hanlan of Stamford-based Robinson+Cole, the application stops short of validating concerns from neighbors and town officials about the intensity of use at Grace Farms—concerns that, once they had been aired this summer, gave rise to the need for this new filing.

In fact, O’Hanlan in the application argues that the Planning & Zoning Commission may have erred in drafting the permit under which Grace now operates, but cannot now go back and cite what Grace officials had said at the public hearings that led to the approval of that permit—since those utterances do not determine what’s allowed as much as the physical document itself (more on that below).

Rather, Grace Farms attributes its need to come back to P&Z to its own technical failure to interpret correctly New Canaan’s Zoning Regulations, according to the Application for Second Amended Special Permit (it is available here in the dropdown menu, listed as ‘365 Lukes Wood Road’).

Specifically, by grouping the ‘Grace Farms Foundation’ in with Grace Church under a “religious institution” use, the organization did not allow room for the Foundation to pursue what the application calls “charitable” (as opposed to religious) activities at its site.

The new application is “made with the benefit of hindsight” and filed “because that distinction between a religious institution and a charitable institution is an important one when it comes to the exercise of philanthropy and to the perception in the community,” it said.

During public hearings in late-2012 and early-2013—a critically important period for Grace, when it won approval from New Canaan’s P&Z Commission for its first amended permit (see a full timeline here)—“it was explained that the Foundation was a separate entity from the church and intended to engage in charitable activities,” the application said.

“However, the Foundation declined to seek a separate use designation for its own activities, because it believed that, given the vision it shared with the Church for community service and good works, a separate principal use was not needed.”

According to the application, Grace “has learned that the principal use designation is more than a technical zoning characterization.”

To address the problem, Grace is seeking to add two new uses—as a club/organization and philanthropic/charitable agency—in its amended special permit (see pages 42 and 162 here). Grace Farms also lays out in its application some plans to scale back and better control what happens on its 80-acre site.

For example, Grace would hold no more than four “large community events” per year with 700-plus attendees, with prior P&Z review and approval, under the proposed permit criteria. The organization also proposes that events with 400 to 700 people would require advance written notice to the town’s zoning officer, according to the application. (By way of comparison, the Philip Johnson Glass House—which sits in a 49-acre site and also is located in a residential zone—after several public hearings this year was allowed to raise the headcount at its lone annual fundraiser from 250 to 400.)

At the same time, under a section titled “Sustainability Planning,” Grace notes that it is seeking to find revenue streams in order to offset capital and other costs. It proposes that for-profit entities may “use the property for limited activities” such as commercial photo shoots, team retreats and videography. It also is seeking permission to use outdoor amplification devices (currently prohibited) and to use private flagmen instead of New Canaan Police when traffic control is required.

P&Z is expected to take up the Grace Farms application at its next regular meeting, scheduled for Oct. 25. (It’s worth noting that Steve Kleppin, New Canaan’s town planner for 11 years, will have started a new job in Norwalk by then.)

It isn’t clear how many public hearings P&Z will need in order to gather input from neighbors, residents and other stakeholders, discuss the application as a group and render a decision, including the creation of conditions if it’s approved.

Critics of Grace Farms have said the organization repeatedly has violated conditions already in place.

Described by one critic as victim of a “bait and switch” by Grace, the town last reviewed the special permit that lays out what’s allowable at Grace during a critical period of about five months in late 2012 and early 2013.

That’s when Grace won P&Z approval for its first amended special permit, introducing what it called the ‘Grace Farms Foundation,’ an entity described as an extension of the church and whose property would be used “for religious services and ancillary activities related to a church,” according to a Grace founder.

After a series of public hearings that addressed the prospect of new and more robust uses at Grace, P&Z at a public hearing approved the first amendment (in March 2013) with conditions, specifying 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.”

Since then, citing activities such as Tai Chi instruction, cooking classes and barbecues, concerned neighbors have spoken out at public meetings and, this summer, the town planner notified Grace Farms through a letter that he finds “some of the uses occurring at the site have indeed exceeded some of the special permit conditions granted in March, 2013.” (Kleppin’s letter did not order Grace to halt activities.)

Grace Farms in its new application pushes back on the town planner’s letter, saying that “its activities since opening” last year “fall within the recognition and grant of authority specifically set forth” in the special permit.

In explaining that interpretation, the application cites a rather broad list identified as Grace Farms’ “core initiatives”—nature, arts, justice, community, faith.

While the town planner finds that P&Z believed it was “approving a church but with a more defined and perhaps more robust outreach program through the Foundation,” the special permit “does not say this,” according to Grace Farms.

“Nor does the Special Permit even mention the term ‘outreach’ or ‘ancillary’ in respect of the Foundation activities or existence.”

According to the application, the hearings in 2012-2013 focused more on site-specific construction than on “the details of the nature and planned activities of the Foundation as a charitable institution.”

However, when Grace officials were pressed during those public hearings on the question of future use at the site, they characterized it as very minimal muse.

For example, on Nov. 27, 2012, 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.”

The following month, Bob Prince, a founder of Grace, during a public hearing before P&Z underscored 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.”

P&Z commissioners during that hearing pressed Prince on the question of the size of activities at Grace Farms, and he responded 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. “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.”

Grace appears in its application to anticipate the resurfacing of those remarks.

“P&Z should be mindful, as its counsel will advise, that it is the terms of the Special Permit itself, and not the transcript of the proceedings or even the deliberations of P&Z itself—or its ‘consensus’ four years later—that constitute the operative approval,” the application said. “The law is clear that, while the degree to which an issue was addressed in a public hearing or in the deliberations of a land use agency may be instructive, it is the terms of the approval document by itself that are paramount.”

Grace in its application appears to acknowledge that P&Z may have made a mistake in drafting the amended special permit 3.5 years ago, but puts that mistake on the town.

“It is understandable that the Foundation would receive only cursory reference in its provisions, with the focus at the time on construction and design issues that are always paramount in any real property development application. But it was P&Z’s choice as to how to craft the Special Permit, and the language it chose in 2012 should not be twisted in hindsight today to suggest that the Foundation activities were not mentioned, or not important, as some of the criticism suggests.”

The line of argument brings to the fore a question already facing P&Z—and addressed, if indirectly, in the new application—on whether Grace Farms officials knew, at the time the first amended special permit was approved, just what would happen at the site. A review of the organization’s incorporating documents, drafted even before the 2012 public hearings, called for far more robust activity than what later was presented to P&Z.

According to Grace Farms, a key conclusion of the 2012-2013 public hearings was that “the intensity of the Foundation use would not exceed the intensity of the Church’s use.”

The application includes a series of charts that are designed to demonstrate just that, and to show that Grace Farms is a “low intensity” site.

For example, according to Grace Farms, 53 percent of all events and meetings at the site are related to the church (rather than Grace Farms Foundation), while 72 percent of total visits from events and meetings are tied to the church, and 63 percent of all events have 20 or fewer attendees, while 29 percent have 21 to 100.

While Grace Farms’ data is designed show use of the church as opposed to the other parts of its campus, the application does not define what constitutes as a “meeting” or “event,” nor does it provide overall numbers of people using Grace, either the church or other part of the site.

The application also cites Grace Farms-commissioned studies on traffic and parking, as well as real estate valuation. The latter study refutes what some neighbors have said, according to the application, “and concludes that the Foundation’s and Church’s activities on the Grace Farms site have not impacted the values of the surrounding properties.”

The application acknowledges neighbors’ concerns and appears to anticipate criticisms that already have been voiced at public hearings.

Citing the “core initiatives,” the application ties a handful of features at the site to nature-arts-justice-community-faith in seeking permission to operate some programs.

For example, a basketball court at Grace Farms is part of its “community initiative,” the application said, as well as the church’s youth outreach.

The application acknowledges that site tours formed no part of the 2012-2013 P&Z hearings or approved permit, and in seeking to continue them notes that community group shave been given free tours and that Grace Farms is “exploring a joint tour program with the Philip Johnson Glass House tour program, following two pilot tours earlier this year that were very well-received.”

In arguing in favor of what some have termed the ‘restaurant’ at Grace Farms, the organization describes it as a “very limited food and beverage service.”

According to the application, “the offering and sharing of food is a significant part of the separate spiritual missions of the [Grace Farms] Foundation and Church.”

“The special permit, while not discussing this service for the public, did provide for a commercial kitchen,” the application said.

Grace Farms does not plan the “food service” as a moneymaker, surplus foods are donated to charities, and a condition could be placed on the amended permit to show that it’s losing money, according to the application.

“The Foundation in 2012 repeatedly stated, and its plans manifest, its intention to preserve the natural setting at Grace Farms for the enjoyment of the New Canaan community,” the application said. “Grace Farms has not been held out or operated as a ‘public park,’ nor will it be. The Foundation is committed to operating Grace Farms with a balance of activities, respecting its stated purpose of creating a place for reflection and peace.”

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