Adam Thatcher was working as director of operations at the newly opened Grace Farms five years ago when he noticed something unexpected coming out of its popular food service. Visitors from across the nation who’d had a cup of coffee in “the Commons” section of Grace Farms’s River building began phoning the organization to say they loved the brew and wanted to buy some. The coffee itself—grown on fair trade, women-owned farms, as per Grace Farms CEO and founder Sharon Prince, and donated by town resident and Grace supporter Joe Apuzzo, who owns coffee roasting and importing companies—was called “Heavenly Roast” at the time. Its beans were available for sale, though in a limited way. In the spring of 2019, Thatcher—who prior to Grace Farms had opened restaurants at Lake Tahoe, Calif.
A state Superior Court judge last week denied Grace Farms’ bid to dismiss parts of a lawsuit brought by neighbors who say the organization and its president are responsible for sediment, silt and turbid water entering a wetlands, stream and pond on their properties during construction of the Lukes Wood Road facility. Starting in September 2013, Grace Farms violated a permit issued by the New Canaan Inland Wetlands Commission in several ways, including by failing to control storm water run-off, failing to hire an independent site monitor and failing to notify the town about problems of erosion and siltation, according to a complaint brought last June on behalf of two abutting neighbors by East Berlin, Conn.-based attorney Janet P. Brooks. Attorneys had argued on behalf of Grace Farms and the organization that those neighbors lack the standing to sue for violations of an Inland Wetlands permit because they’re individuals and not the issuing agency, according to a decision filed April 10 by Judge Marshall K. Berger. Yet “as abutting landowners, the plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged that they are personally aggrieved by the Grace defendants’ failures to comply with the conditions and that these failures have adversely affected the plaintiffs’ property and their use and enjoyment of it,” Berger wrote. The judge continued: “Indeed, the plaintiffs’ interest in insuring that the Grace defendants did not violate the conditions of the permit could not be greater given that the plaintiffs’ property is downstream and that alleged discharges have occurred and continue to occur … therefore, the motion to dismiss count two is denied.”
In all, Brooks on behalf of her clients—Smith Ridge Road residents Timothy Curt and Dona Bissonnette—included five counts in the original complaint.
Complaints from two sets of neighbors about the Grace Farms’ failure to comply with temporary measures imposed by the town are in at least one respect inaccurate, according to an attorney representing the Lukes Wood Road organization. Claims that lights at the Grace Farms’ River Building were on all night last week with the exception of Tuesday are “simply not true,” according to a March 7 response letter, sent to the town planner by Ted O’Hanlan of Stamford-based Robinson + Cole. “We are happy to meet with you in person to review our camera footage,” O’Hanlan said in the letter, which he also forwarded Thursday to NewCanaanite.com. Painting a sunnier picture of Grace Farms’ communications with those whose concerns last year compelled the organization to file an application to amend its zoning permit, O’Hanlan said it “has been working with all its neighbors and with your offices to collect information and viewpoints, as it considers the amended application that it has agreed to file by March 15.”
“This effort has included correspondence, discussions and meetings with neighbors, landscape architects, and you [Palmer], on February 17th. We anticipate a further meeting with the neighbors in advance of our submission, when the screening/buffer plans are received from the landscape architects.
Grace Farms for 16 months has exceeded its town-approved uses, and now that the organization’s leaders intend to withdraw an application—under consideration since September, to allow for ongoing and non-permitted activities at their Lukes Wood Road site—officials should instruct them to come into compliance straightaway, according to an attorney representing some neighbors of the facility. The Planning & Zoning Commission in 2013 approved a an amended special permit for Grace Farms as a religious institution, and its neighbors now “respectfully request that the Commission demand that [Grace Farms] immediately come into compliance with the terms and conditions” of that permit, attorney Amy Souchuns of Milford-based Hurwitz Sagarin Slossberg & Knuff said in a memo sent Friday to the town planner. Grace Farms’ “long-standing, continuing, material and well known” violations, combined with its “woefully inadequate submission, cannot be even implicitly blessed with this [P&Z] Commission’s patience,” according to Souchuns. “Therefore, the Commission must take long overdue action to address these violations with clear directives to the [Grace Farms] Foundation following any withdrawal and during the pendency of a new application.”
Grace Farms is scheduled to come before P&Z during a special meeting Tuesday night. Reached through a spokesperson, Grace Farms Foundation President Sharon Prince issued the following statement when asked about the matter by NewCanaanite.com:
“In order to allow more time for all parties to work collaboratively together toward a beneficial plan for the town of New Canaan, Grace Farms and neighbors, we temporarily withdrew our amended special permit application on Friday evening, January 20th.
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.