Through its diverse activities, Grace Farms may be running afoul of the specific terms and conditions that accompanied its hard-won approval from the town three years ago, officials said this week.
Back in 2013, when the Planning & Zoning Commission approved an amended special permit for Grace Farms, town officials required additional plantings on the site due to discussion about “activities occurring at the site,” according to Town Planner Steve Kleppin.
“We knew that Grace’s vision of the property was evolving,” Kleppin said Monday during a special meeting of the Zoning Board of Appeals, held at Town Hall. “We knew the kinds of things they wanted to do. While they’re all great, they may not necessarily be consistent with the terms and conditions of the special permit, and also with what the commission though they were approving back in 2013.”
The comments came as the ZBA took up a separate though related matter: A neighbor filed an appeal to Grace Farms’ Certificate of Occupancy, saying one condition tied to the organization’s zoning permit had not been met. The specific condition called for Grace Farms and the neighbors, Tim Curt and Dona Bisonnette, to reach an agreement regarding landscaping between their properties, and if they could not do so, that the town’s zoning inspector should step in and determine whether more screening was needed. Kleppin’s position has been that his involvement never was triggered because he understood the two sides to have reached an agreement—a read ultimately backed by the ZBA. Citing an email from the neighbors that includes the assertion that what was presented by the Grace landscaper “reasonably addresses the landscaping requests that we made,” the group denied the appeal.
Though they denied the appeal, members of the ZBA noted that if Grace was using its property in more robust ways than what had been approved, then that could well trigger the need for greater screening.
Attorney Ira Bloom of Westport’s Berchem, Moses & Devlin, P.C., speaking as Kleppin’s advisor in the appeal, said that he and the town planner “have discussed fairly extensively the activities that take place on this property.”
“He could tell you directly that he is going to look at that carefully. He’s probably going to take that before the Planning & Zoning Commission. Neither he nor I can prejudge anything at this point, but it is an issue that is on his agenda and it will be addressed. If there is a problem, if there is something that exceeds the scope of the special permit, it will be brought to the attention of the Planning & Zoning Commission. It becomes perhaps an enforcement issue, but that will be perhaps the most immediate mechanism and the proper mechanism to review that.”
Bloom added that the town has received complaints about activities at Grace Farms, from more neighbors than just Curt and Bisonnette.
During the zoning board hearing, the attorney for the appellants—Amy Zabetakis of Darien’s Rucci Law Group—showed part of a public hearing before P&Z (embedded below), just a few months before the amended special permit was approved, where a founder of Grace Farms described rather modest, strictly church-related activities there.
In describing the Grace Farms Foundation, Bob Prince during the December 2012 hearing underscored that it is an extension of the church and that Grace Farms itself is designed “to further the mission of our church.”
“There is a continuity of purpose between the vision for our church and the Grace Farms project,” Prince said, adding that the property would be used “for religious services and ancillary activities related to a church.”
P&Z commissioners pressed Prince on the question of the size of activities at Grace Farms. 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.”
P&Z issued the special permit just a few months later.
Among the conditions included in the Grace Farms approval, P&Z had specified 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.”
“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 conditions say. “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.”
An attorney representing Grace Farms, Edward O’Hanlan of Stamford-based Robinson + Cole, told P&Z it was unfair to excerpt from the 2012 public hearing. Grace Farms is “not afraid of addressing” any questions related to its use of the 80-acre property, he said.
“There has been a sort of shorthand reference to Grace as Grace Church, because that’s what it started as, but this special permit process was intended expressly for the purpose of obtaining approvals for the foundation of Grace Farms,” O’Hanlan said. “A foundation that includes a church but is broader than a church. We are comfortable going before Planning & Zoning. There are no secrets and no effort to hide anything.”
It isn’t clear just how or when a discussion about activities at Grace Farms will unfold at a public meeting. The next regular meeting of P&Z is scheduled for May 31.
Kleppin, referring to the use of Grace Farms, said “that is a discussion that will have to happen with the Planning & Zoning Commission.”
“I have spoken to the chairman about it, as recently as last week, and we are all in agreement” that it needed to wait for the CO appeal to wrap up, Kleppin said.