New Canaan’s strong zoning is one of its most important assets, according to one incumbent member of the town’s legislative body. The zoning regulations are what underpin property values here, yet in recent years—considering the handling of applications for Merritt Village, Grace Farms, the Roger Sherman Inn, mixed-use on Forest Street and “Zone D” on Grove Street, New Canaan has been “managing by exception,” according to Town Councilman John Engel. “The mere fact that we have 100 caveats to the Grace Farms approval, another 100 for the Merritt Village approval, shows that we have got to do a better job of getting in front of this and the evidence is, it is costing us money,” Engel, a Republican seeking re-election to the Town Council, said during a debate last week. “When I talk to the developer [of Heritage Square] on Forest Street and I ask, ‘Would you do it again?’ and he said, ‘No, it’s far too risky to develop in this town not knowing after a two-year process whether your project will get approved or not.’ So developers are staying away and I don’t know if most people realize it, but building permits are down by 50 percent this year versus last year. It is costing us money.