Despite concerns voiced by a Planning & Zoning Commission member who lives near The Glass House, the appointed body last week voted 4-2 to allow the organization to host a wedding this fall on its Ponus Ridge campus. Dick Ward, a P&Z commissioner who lives on Winfield Lane, .3 miles from the National Trust for Historic Preservation site, said approval of the Oct. 4 wedding “would, in my opinion, create perhaps an unnecessary and perhaps dangerous precedent, on two levels.”
“One is it’s been our longtime practice that financial considerations are not a criteria to support a Special Permit or an amendment to a Special Permit,” Ward said during P&Z’s regular meeting, held Aug. 25 via videoconference. “And it’s pretty clear that the request is based on a financial concern and I don’t think we want to open that door.
Saying it’s a reasonable request given the COVID-19 virus-related restrictions, the Planning & Zoning Commission last week agreed to make special allowances for The Glass House to operate this summer. Allowing a limited number of visitors to drive directly to the Ponus Ridge site and for others to park at West School (pending approval by the Board of Education) will help the National Trust for Historic Preservation site during a challenging time and will not have a negative impact on the neighborhood, P&Z members said during their May 26 meeting. Just the opposite, according to Chair John Goodwin. “I think quite frankly this will help the property values of the neighbors because we are not in the money business, but these guys need to make money and if they are not, and that property falls into disrepair it’s going to negatively impact the values of the properties of those neighbors,” Goodwin said at the meeting, held via videoconference.
Under rules that will be in effect through August with an option to renew them depending on guidance from the state, The Glass House will sell tickets online only for a “grounds pass” that provides access to the 49-acre site’s upper 13 acres and no building access. Other conditions proposed by Glass House Executive Director Greg Sages include that grounds passes will be limited to a maximum of 25 visitors at a time, with no group larger than five, and that on-site parking will be limited to 10 cars.
Saying he would have voiced the very same concerns regarding a recent application to the Planning & Zoning Commission even if he didn’t live near the site in question, a member of the appointed group on Tuesday night nevertheless recused himself from further discussion or voting on the matter. P&Z Commissioner Dick Ward cited an editorial published this week “basically asking me to recuse myself with respect to the Glass House application,” and said he was “willing to do so,” though he also noted that his Winfield Lane home does not fall within the formal 100-foot notification area as required under the New Canaan Zoning Regulations.
“I did receive a letter from the Glass House several months ago simply mentioning that they were holding a meeting for some neighbors, and I think it said that I was invited to attend, which I did not,” Ward said during the Commission’s regular meeting, held at Town Hall. “I don’t want the mere fact that you may live in the mere area of the applicant to somehow become a precedent that, whether you are a neighbor or not, just because you may live in the area, you have to recuse yourself,” Ward added by way of making his own recusal. “I think it’s a choice that should be made by the individual commissioner. Clearly, if you are a member of some club and there is an application from the club or something like that, you have an obvious conflict of interest.
Planning & Zoning Commissioner Dick Ward’s continued participation in hearings regarding the Philip Johnson Glass House is unseemly, unhelpful and poses a legal risk to the town. He should recuse himself from related votes and discussions in the future. A neighbor of the Glass House who has faced criticism in the past for refusing to recuse himself when the organization has applied to amend its zoning permit, Ward during P&Z’s July 30 meeting once again spoke out against an application made on behalf of the National Trust for Historic Preservation site.
He did so unreasonably, unnecessarily and inconsistently with his own past practice as a commissioner. Ward’s Winfield Lane house sits a five-minute walk or two-minute drive from the Glass House property on Ponus Ridge, according to Google Maps. In the past, he has pushed back on the recommendation to recuse himself from Glass House hearings by saying that he doesn’t discuss the organization’s application with others who live in the neighborhood, and that he lives beyond the legally required 100-foot “notification area” for land use applicants.
Representatives from a major cultural attraction in New Canaan say they’re willing to withdraw a request that visitors be able to park closer to the renowned architectural site on Ponus Ridge, so long as municipal officials appreciate their need to meet demand for tours and an expanded tour season. Should the Planning & Zoning Commission approve a request to expand the season by two weeks at each end, the Philip Johnson Glass House also would reduce its request for 15 “special small group events” during the winter offseason to five or six, according to Greg Sages, executive director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation site.
Additionally, Sages told P&Z at its most recent meeting, if the Glass House could start tours earlier on Sunday and introduce some new evening hours, it would eliminate some midweek tour offers that don’t draw enough interest to justify staffing them. “We can survive without that,” Sages said during P&Z’s regular meeting, held July 30 at Town Hall. “What is important to us is to be able to extend the season and to be able to start earlier on Sunday and have some evening hours.”
The comments came as Sages and attorney Diana Neeves of Stamford-based Robinson+Cole presented the Glass House’s application to modify an existing Special Permit that specifies when and how the nonprofit organization must operate between its visitors’ center on Elm Street and 49-acre site on Ponus Ridge, open to the public since 2007. The application also seeks to up from 400 to 500 the maximum number of attendees allowed at the Glass House’s lone annual fundraiser, The Summer Party, elimination of a “moratorium” that prevents the Glass House from applying for a specified number of years to amend its operating permit, and to change when specific approval for some types of events requires official sign-off from the town (as opposed to notification from the Glass House).