Saying its rights as a religious organization are being violated, Grace Farms on Friday sued the town in connection with conditions included in recent approvals from the Planning & Zoning Commission.
The Grace Farms Foundation “is statutorily and classically aggrieved” by P&Z’s Sept. 26 heavily conditioned approval of its application to amend its zoning permit and is appealing the town’s decision because it is “specially and injuriously affected,” according to a lawsuit filed on behalf of the Lukes Wood Road organization by Attorney Diana Neeves of Stamford-based Robinson + Cole.
“The Resolution is illegal, arbitrary, capricious and constitutes an abuse of discretion for a variety of reasons,” including that it “imposes conditions on activities and events of the [Grace Farms] Foundation that are not reasonably supported by substantial evidence in the record before the Commission about the [Grace Farms] Foundation’s operations and how they protect the health and safety of visitors and the neighborhood,” according to the lawsuit, filed in state Superior Court and received Oct. 20 in the New Canaan Town Clerk’s office.
The town’s decision also “imposes at least one condition that constitutes an invalid penalty under law” and “imposes limitations on religious activity on the site, that, upon information and belief, were not intended, and that are in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 … and the Connecticut Religious Freedom Act.”
The lawsuit refers here to a federal law that is designed to protect religious institutions from discriminatory land use regulations, as well as a state religious freedom statute.
It wasn’t immediately clear just which of the record-high 100 conditions P&Z included in its approval of Grace Farms’ amended zoning permit are thought to be restricting religious activity on the overall 75-acre site.
Under the approval, Grace Farms may not host revenue-generating events, must remove the “sound sculpture” from a pond on its property and may not advertise its food service establishment as a standalone amenity. The approval also includes specific limitations on the number and size of events at Grace Farms, requires the organization to track more closely the use of its site and to maintain a 5-foot fence around the perimeter of its property “to delineate Grace Farms Foundation’s property from that of its abutting neighbors.”
One set of those neighbors filed their own lawsuit earlier in the week, saying P&Z’s approvals will hurt them financially and threaten residential zones in New Canaan.
Starting last September, at the urging of town officials—nearly one year after opening to the public—Grace Farms began filing applications both to change the language of the New Canaan Zoning Regulations in order to be classified as more than a religious institution as well as to get specific permission to carry out its varied and robust activities.
P&Z ultimately changed the regulations to allow more than one “principal use” for Grace Farms—under the approval, it is a philanthropic agency and club, as well as a religious institution. The approval also allows Grace Farms to expand the operating hours of its “Commons” cafeteria, as well as its “Tea Room,” sell books, souvenirs and other items, and let outside groups use its gym.
A spokesperson for Grace Farms issued a statement saying the organization through its legal filing sought “to clarify language in the new special permit voted on by the Planning and Zoning Commission.”
Calling the lawsuit “a friendly appeal,” Grace Farms thanked the town and P&Z commissioners “for their many months of work and for their thoughtful decisions on the conditions that are part of the special permit” and said it had been in talks with the town attorney regarding “some questions about language in the special permit document that did not exactly match what was discussed and voted on.”
Neighbors Jennifer Holme and David Markatos said in their own statement that “concerned citizens should recognize that this is the second instance that the leadership behind Grace Farms Foundation has sued the town over a special permit approval—the first being in 2008, which resulted in the town expending significant monies and resources to defend a decision of the Planning & Zoning Commission.”
They continued: “As abutting neighbors, we view this latest lawsuit and its allegations that Grace Farms Foundation’s religious freedoms have been infringed by the new special permit and that the special permit’s operating conditions are outside of the scope of the Commission’s authority, to be frivolous. Put simply, this lawsuit lays bare not only the mendacity of Grace Farms Foundation, which represented repeatedly that it is a secular organization during recently concluded zoning proceedings, but also Grace Farms Foundation’s continued hostile and aggressive approach to the New Canaan community, including the neighbors that they purport to embrace and champion. We fully expect abutting neighbors whose property rights and values have been materially impacted by the encroachments of Grace Farms to intervene in this latest lawsuit.”
Grace officials in the foundation’s statement said: “We look forward to raising these issues in public to defend vigorously the very hard work and effort that staff and the Commission and the Foundation expended over the last year.”