Neighbors: Grace Farms Is Trying to Rewrite History, Mislead the Town

Grace Farms in seeking to continue using its campus in ways that the town never imagined or approved—and in staking out an untenable legal position to defend its misuse—is rewriting the public record and deliberately misleading planning officials, according to those opposed to a new application from the organization. Contrary to what Grace Farms has said in seeking to amend again its operating permit, and reiterated at a public hearing last month, an entity called ‘Grace Farms Foundation’ never has been granted the right to operate the organization’s 80-acre Lukes Wood Road site, according to a letter filed Friday with the town by an attorney representing concerned neighbors. When local planning officials approved an amended permit nearly four years ago—an approval followed at Grace by the rise of ‘The River’ structure and, in violation of that permit, the wide-ranging programs that operate out of its various buildings—it was to then-property owner Grace Property Holdings LLC “which actively and expressly presented the application to be solely for the benefit of Grace Community Church,” according to a letter filed with the Planning & Zoning Commission by attorney Amy Zabetakis of Darien-based Rucci Law Group. So it’s no wonder that Grace Farms Foundation now wishes to come back to P&Z “to obtain the kind of broad expansion of usage for a range of activities they are now seeking.”

“The current application seeks such an expansive set of activities with so few limitations that it is in essence seeking formal approval to convert Grace Farms from a home for a church, under the existing special permit, into an operation with virtually unrestricted capacity to pursue a myriad of non-profit and for profit and revenue raising initiatives, that happens to be home to a Grace Community Church as well (for so long as the Foundation chooses not to revoke its license),” Zabetakis wrote. “Indeed, Grace Community Church has become the ancillary use.”

P&Z is expected to hear from concerned neighbors and their representatives, including Zabetakis as well as attorney Amy Souchuns of Milford-based Hurwitz Sagarin Slossberg & Knuff LLC, during a public hearing at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

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.

After Strained Meeting with Neighbors, Grace Farms Faces Questions About Transparency at Past Public Hearings

Though Grace Farms intends to “work” planning officials regarding complaints that its varied, robust and non-religious activities violate what’s allowed at its 80-acre site, the organization is failing to collaborate in earnest with its own next-door neighbors, according to records of a meeting the two parties held this month. Representatives from Grace at a June 16 meeting with the owners of six abutting properties said out loud that they wanted to understand the neighbors’ concerns, according to minutes of the meeting sent to the chairman of the Planning & Zoning Commission, as well as the town attorney, town planner and first selectman. Yet, for example, when the neighbors “voiced concerns about the impact of the significant scale, intensity of use, and scope of Grace’s activities on their property values,” representatives from Grace responded “that they understood that Grace Farms was generally perceived as having a positive impact on New Canaan property values,” according to minutes of the meeting taken by a neighbor and sent June 20 to town officials. “The neighbors noted that visitors to their properties have likened the view of Grace Farms to that of an industrial park or an airport, depending upon the time of day, and noted the detrimental impact of regular and virtually unrestricted use of Grace Farms on their safety, security and privacy, which have resulted in a material negative impact on the value and salability of their properties. The Grace representatives continued to emphasize their view that Grace Farms enhances general public perceptions of New Canaan and property value generally in New Canaan, as if the points we just raised relative to our specific properties—all of which directly abut Grace Farms—had not registered with them.”

The discussion also touched on a looming 2-story structure originally depicted as a “shed” in site plans, as well as noise, lighting, long hours and volume of visitors—concerns that Grace personnel previously had dismissed, according to the minutes, obtained by, making it seem “disingenuous for them to be interested in acting like good neighbors now.”

Based on past dealings with people at Grace, “we had not been interacting with an organization whose ‘tone at the top’ was focused on being a good neighbor,” the minutes said.

Officials: Activities at Grace Farms May Be Inconsistent with Town-Issued Permit

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.