‘It Seems Like the Ancillary Uses Have Taken Over’: Town To Investigate Claims That Grace Farms Has Run Afoul of Permitted Uses


New Canaan’s senior zoning enforcement officer will find out whether Grace Farms is exceeding the permitted use of its property—as suspected by some local planning officials and asserted by several neighbors—and, depending on the organization’s response, kick-start a process to resolve what has quickly become a sensitive and closely followed matter now before the town.

What will result from Town Planner Steve Kleppin’s investigation is unclear—whether Grace Farms works with its neighbors on a mutually agreeable plan, seeks to modify its operating permit, faces fines or a cease-and-desist order, denies claims that it’s overstepping or changes its activities to conform to what’s been approved, officials said Tuesday night.

For Kleppin, the situation is unique in that “it’s not like I’m investigating a complaint that somebody built a shed in their backyard and I go out and see the shed and say, ‘Here’s the shed.’ ”

“The only tricky thing is that if I start an enforcement action—I could do a simple letter stating that in my opinion you have exceeded [certain] conditions based upon this action and this action at an event held [on such-and-such a date],” Kleppin told members of the Planning & Zoning Commission during their regular meeting, held at Town Hall.

“To proceed along that track and ultimately, if I were to issue, for example, a cease-and-desist order or proceed with another enforcement action, they can take an appeal to my determination to the Zoning Board of appeals. At which point, you [P&Z] are no longer in the process. It is up to the ZBA to sit in my shoes and determination whether Grace is in violation of the conditions or not. So that is why I’m thinking the latter approach—having the open hearing, where both parties come and state their case on different matters and you state whether you feel they are outside the bounds of the special permit—if at that point, if you lean toward saying, ‘This is our thought process in approving the special permit and we feel you have exceeded the conditions of the special permit,’ then we can take the next step in terms of enforcement action, or Grace has the ability to come in and seek to modify their special permit where they say, ‘These are the activities and how we wanted be viewed all along’ and re-position the special permit application. The downside for Grace to do that is that the neighbors also have the ability to argue their case in front of the commission under a new special permit application or an amended special permit application.”

Several neighbors made their case in letters submitted this month to P&Z—the arguments within are part of what prompted the commission to take up the matter, following the ZBA’s denial of an appeal to Grace Farms’ Certificate of Occupancy. The commission’s discussion at the meeting was confined within P&Z itself and did include public comment, and Chairman John Goodwin underscored that only one side of issue has been voiced, that of the neighbors.

In a May 13 letter to Goodwin, obtained by NewCanaanite.com, five sets of Smith Ridge Road neighbors argue that Grace—open to the public since last fall—has violated many times and in different ways the permitted uses of its site, which garnered approval from P&Z on the strength of its assertion that activities there would center around its role as a religious institution. Citing testimony at multiple public hearings that led to the 2013 amended special permit for Grace Farms, as well as more than two dozen conditions in the permit itself, local news articles and published notices of goings-on at the 80-acre property, the neighbors paint a picture of bait-and-switch on the part of the organization, where Grace officials immediately upon opening to the public began re-branding as a community organization separate from the church around which the property had been founded and won P&Z approval in the first place.

For example, the neighbors say, the special permit specifies that “use of the property for multi-organizational conferences and/or usage as a conference center” is prohibited, and that the Grace gym and athletic field can’t be rented or used by outside organizations without approval from P&Z. Yet two months ago, a woman ran $10 Tai Chi classes in the gym. And last month, an item appeared in an online publication stating that Grace Farms is actively soliciting applications for grants of space in its conference facilities for use by outside organizations, the neighbors said in their letter.

“A review of the Grace Farms events calendar makes clear that the vast majority of activities sponsored by the Foundation at the site since October 2015 are not ancillary, or related in any way to the activities of a religious institution,” the letter said.

“In fact, none of the calendared events appear to be organized or sponsored by Grace Church. Considering the scope and scale of the Foundation’s activities, one comes away with the district impression that the operation of Grace Church as a religious institution at the site is now ancillary and incidental to the operations of the foundation.”

The upshot is that visitors to the property now far exceed the church’s congregants, the neighbors said, and they’re now facing security, safety, noise and privacy concerns that rightly should have surfaced years ago during P&Z’s public hearing and approval process.

The neighbors further assert that Grace is using parts of its site for walking trails and as staging areas for overflow parking in violation of the special permit. In noting some 42 nonprofit organizations in New Canaan and nearby that have availed themselves of the Grace property, the neighbors say they intend not to criticize “the mission or good intentions behind the Foundation or the organizations it supports.”

“But its activities are clearly far beyond the scope and scale that were described in the application process,” the letter to P&Z said. “The nobility of the Foundation’s cause does not justify a disregard of applicable zoning rules and the procedures by which towns seek to regulate activity for the benefit of all residents.”

Although Grace Farms Foundation was established in 2009 “to support initiatives in the areas of faith, the arts, social justice and community,” as per a finding of fact by P&Z itself, the neighbors said, the owners of the site “did not apply to permit the operation of a philanthropic organization on the site.”

In a follow-up letter to Goodwin dated May 21, the neighbors point to a handful of scheduled activities at Grace Farms—some have already taken place— “of the sort for which many other organizations in town would be required to seek P&Z approval were they to occur at their facilities.” The point to a barbecue, benefit, special event, cooking class and symposium.

“As Grace Farms is actively courting local organizations to make use of its facilities for events that have long term planning implications, we believe the need to properly interpret the Grace Farms use conditions is acute,” the letter said.

Commissioners at the meeting encouraged Kleppin to try and bring both Grace Farms and its neighbors into a constructive dialogue.

Commissioner Bill Redman said that if P&Z had been led to believe that what would be a religious institution is now more of a “community center-type operation, that should be a concern.”

“I mean, we as a commission should not be misled or have the wool pulled over our eyes without some consequence,” Redman said.

Asked by Commissioner Jack Flinn whether he has been able to determine whether Grace Farms appears to be in violation, Kleppin said: “I have to go back and look at each item in the letter more carefully, but I feel there are definitely some situations where I feel if they are not over the bounds, they are pushing envelope of the bounds.”

“Just my two cents. From what I have heard from several people and I have kind of come to this conclusion myself: It seems that when the initial application was brought in, what was proposed and thought of was a church with ancillary uses similar to what other churches do, and now it seems like the ancillary uses have taken over and the church is the secondary use.”

5 thoughts on “‘It Seems Like the Ancillary Uses Have Taken Over’: Town To Investigate Claims That Grace Farms Has Run Afoul of Permitted Uses

  1. Directly from gracefarms.org

    “The vision for Grace Farms was inspired by the Christian faith, however, people of all faiths or no faith at all are welcome.”

    The Christian Faith is philanthropic and community building in principle.

  2. I have attended Grace Farms many times and I am familiar with the charitable programs the Grace Foundation provides to the community inclusive of preventing trafficking of women. The property is huge. This investigation to me is nothing but a witch hunt. How many special events and traffic clogging instances do the churches on God’s Acre and Pine Street and Route 124 cause? Are the Good Ol Boys concerned of the number of residents and non-residents opting for Grace rather than sticking with the established town (tax exempt) houses of worship. Maybe traffic should be banned on Lukes Wood Road all together to satisfy a few. I lived on Laurel Road for 21 years and the traffic has vastly increased as the Town Planner(s) have allowed St Lukes to grow from a small school (when I purchased my home) to almost the size of a small university. Additionally St Lukes built their football field without a permit up to the property line of a neighbor. The planner at the time granted them a subsequent after the fact permit, no penalty. Why is Grace Farms and the Grace Foundation being singled out!

  3. “How many special events and traffic clogging instances do the churches on God’s Acre and Pine Street and Route 124 cause? ”

    How many churches on God’s Acre include a restaurant, a tea shop, a gym, not to mention throw events such as a BBQ’s for 300+ people on their property?

  4. Give me a break… the property is huge and even at their biggest events everything is quite well contained. This hunt is for people with nothing better to do than go after a place that doesn’t fit the typical “church” mold. New Canaan NEEDS a place like Grace Farm to operate as more than a church, as a gathering place for the community, cultural and intellectual events, etc. In short, residents should be proud of it.

  5. To the reader who submitted a comment in reply to Seth: The email you attached to your username, ‘Jess,’ bounced back to me as undeliverable. For pointed remarks such as yours, especially on a serious topic such as this, I need to be able to verify your identity and, in this case, I would have asked you to use either a full first name and last initial, or vice versa. If you want to resubmit under those terms, and with a valid email, please do. I also am happy to discuss my thinking on this and can be reached via email at editor@newcanaanite.com or on my cellphone at 203-817-1278. Thank you.

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