‘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.

Congregational Church on God’s Acre: ‘It Is Our Church Cemetery’

Though the town’s highest elected official said recently that he doesn’t understand the Congregational Church of New Canaan’s claim regarding ownership of God’s Acre, an email obtained by NewCanaanite.com shows that the church’s pastor had outlined the position to him early this summer. The Rev. Chapin Garner told First Selectman Kevin Moynihan in a June 9 email, “Our understanding is this: God’s Acre is not only a cemetery, it is our church cemetery.”

“Indeed, it is named ‘God’s Acre’ because that is the 17th century term for a church burial ground,” Garner said in the email, whose copied recipients included Town Attorney Ira Bloom, attorney Gabriella Kiniry, a congregant who has advised the church, and Nick Williams, a selectman who also is a a member the church. “We have had pastors and parishioners buried on that hill, and it is our sacred obligation to protect that hallowed ground in which they were laid to rest,” Garner’s email continued. “We do not want anything built on our ancient burial ground—not a terrace and not sidewalks. Not only is that our desire, but we strongly believe Connecticut State law prohibits any construction on an ancient burial ground.”

He referred to a state law that prohibits towns from using ancient burial grounds for anything other than burials.

Did You Hear … ?

Gov. Ned Lamont said Thursday that he intends to sign an order keeping all Connecticut schools closed through at least May 20. “Out of the best interests of the health and safety of students, teachers, and staff, we feel this is the best approach at this time,” he said in a press release. According to New Canaan Emergency Management Director Mike Handler, the town had 106 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 11 deaths as of Thursday evening. ***

Regarding the estimated $12 million renovation of police headquarters on South Avenue, First Selectman Kevin Moynihan said during a discussion of long-term capital spending at Tuesday’s meeting of the Board of Finance, “If anything, if we are going into a recession or a depression, maybe you push the Police Department [project] off entirely.”

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New Canaan Police posted on Instagram Thursday that thieves continue to take advantage of residents who are not locking their cars amid the COVID-19 emergency. “More and more cars are being entered at night and several cars have been stolen,” police said.