‘Our Volunteer Commissioners Deserve Better’: Judge Rules Against Town in Lawsuit Brought by Neighbors of Grace Farms

A judge this month ruled against the town in its decision to uphold the issuance of a zoning permit for an interior renovation of a former residential dwelling at Grace Farms.

Neighbors of the Lukes Wood Road organization in July 2019 appealed the town zoning enforcement officer’s decision to issue the permit, saying, in part, that the Planning & Zoning Commission should have been consulted—or even designated as the deciding body—as to whether the work amounted to a disallowed, more intense use of the “Operations Center” at Grace Farms.

If so, that could amount to a violation of the organization’s existing special permit, according to neighbors David Markatos and Jennifer Holme, represented in the legal matter by attorney Amy Souchuns of Stamford-based Hurwitz Sagarin Slossberg & Knuff LLC. Yet the Zoning Board of Appeals—without specifying why—denied their appeal by a 4-1 vote at its November 2019 meeting, prompting the neighbors to sue the ZBA the same month. On May 10, after about 18 months of litigation, Judge Marshall Berger of the state Superior Court in Hartford ruled against the ZBA (and Grace Farms Foundation, which joined the suit as a defendant after filing a motion to intervene in January 2020). In a 15-page decision that is at times strongly worded, Berger noted that the ZBA’s role “was limited and it was up to the [Planning & Zoning] commission to decide if the construction constituted a violation” (his italics). “Under that reasoning, after all the time the board devoted to this issue and the time and expense of this appeal, should this court dismiss the appeal, the [P&Z] commission might thereafter decide that the construction did indeed constitute a violation of the special permit thereby promoting a new enforcement action.

Did You Hear … ?

Municipal officials on Thursday denied a request to view a legal opinion rendered by the town attorney’s firm regarding New Canaan’s volunteer firefighters. The following line items and billing hours appear in a legal bill approved Feb. 11 by the Board of Selectmen, detailing what are described as professional tasks achieved by Berchem & Moses lawyers Christopher Hodgson, Kyle Roseman, Meredith Diette and Rebecca Goldberg, between Jan. 6 and 24 (New Canaan taxpayers fund an $8,5000 monthly retainer with the firm): 

“Follow up re: volunteer firefighters (.5 hours);
“Discussed strategy for payment of volunteer firefighters advice letter (.3 hours);
“Drafting advice letter re: payment of volunteer firefighters (.6 hours);
“Research volunteer firefighter issue (1 hour);
“Drafting advice letter re: payment of volunteer firefighters (2 hours);
“Review volunteer opinion memo; forward first draft to [Town Human Resources Director Cheryl Pickering-Jones] (.7 hours);
“Drafted advice letter re: use of volunteer firefighters to cover for career firefighter shifts (4 hours);
“Edited advice letter (1 hour);
“Emailed letter along with summary and additional memos of law for review (.4 hours);
“Research, review and revision of opinion letter re: volunteer firefighters (2 hours);
“Interoffice communication re: volunteer firefighter issue; research recent law re: same and draft language for opinion letter re: same (1.1 hours); 
“Research re: definition of volunteer firefighter; interoffice conference re: same (1.5 hours);
“Continued research for volunteer firefighter opinion; revise draft letter (1.7 hours);
“Interoffice communication re: volunteer firefighter issue (1.3 hours);
“Research, review and revision of opinion letter re: volunteer firefighters (1.3 hours);
“Interoffice discussions re: volunteer firefighters; review and analyze DOL opinion letters re: same (.7 hours);
“Final revisions to opinion letter re: volunteer firefighters (.8 hours);
“Interoffice communication re: volunteer firefighters (.7 hours);
“Conference with C. Jones to follow up re: volunteer firefighter issue (.3 hours);
“Reviewed final draft of letter re: compensation of unpaid firefighters (.5 hours);
“Draft memo re: volunteers; telephone conference with C. Jones.”

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The Town Clerk’s office on Feb. 20 recorded a notice of a $13,398.51 state real estate tax lien for the White Oak Shade Road home whose owners include a husband and wife who pleaded guilty to federal charges in connection with a health care fraud scheme. 

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The Board of Education has scheduled a special meeting for March 2 to conduct a “student disciplinary hearing” in executive session.