‘New Canaan Is Not a Number of Houses or Residents’: P&Z Agrees To Modify Operating Permit for Philip Johnson Glass House


After two public hearings that saw neighbors, including one member of the Planning & Zoning Commission, voice opposition to a proposal from the Philip Johnson Glass House to expand its operations, town officials on Tuesday night agreed to approve a slightly modified version of those plans.

Designed to help the National Trust for Historic Preservation site fund the maintenance and restoration of its 49-acre Ponus Ridge campus and the 14 architecturally significant structures on it, the Glass House’s proposal—raising the baseline headcount allowed on the property and extending the hours during which people can visit—in January drew criticism from some neighbors concerned about noise and traffic. P&Z commissioner Dick Ward also voiced a familiar concern about the “creep” in scope that sometimes accompanies institutional uses in residential zones.

Yet referring to the Glass House’s plans as “institutional creep” sets New Canaan off “in the wrong direction,” P&Z commissioner Laszlo Papp said at a special meeting of the group, held at Town Hall.

“I would personally not call these entities ‘institutions.’ I would call them ‘public entities.’ Why? Because I think a town like New Canaan is not a number of houses or residents. It is also the activities these residents conduct in various ways, whether it’s schools or the YMCA or a museum or whatever—so the ‘institutional’ designation implies that these are alien bodies inserted into the residential neighborhoods, which is not true, in my view. I have even more problems with the word ‘creep.’ I assume ‘creep’ means some increased activity by these entities. And again, the life of any organization or any town or any community, means evolving and changing. The ‘creep’ in my view is a somewhat derogatory description of that activity. If we call it ‘institutional creep’ then we can cite some institution or public entities which preceded the surrounding neighbors after these entities were already established and some of them even before zoning was instituted—and we don’t call it ‘residential creep.’ This kind of designation makes absolutely no sense, in my view.”

Ultimately, the commission reviewed line-by-line the proposed new language to be inserted into the Glass House’s revised special operating permit. P&Z Chairman John Goodwin called for a sense of commissioners and they unanimously supported the changes, mostly linguistic. Town Planner Steve Kleppin said he would prepare a final version for P&Z to approve during a special meeting already scheduled for Thursday.

The commissioners—after some spirited wrangling and researched input from several members—agreed to allow the Glass House to increase the number of attendees at its lone annual fundraiser from 250 to 400, though only for one year. The organization then would report back on specifics such as traffic and noise, and restricting outdoor loudspeaker use to that single event, with conditions on decibel levels. The group also decided to eliminate a category of two total events described as “corporate” or “business,” combining them with so-called “programmatic” events—now five in total per year, involving 51 to 150 people—that are “directly related to the history, educational and/or cultural mission of The Glass House.”

At Goodwin’s urging, P&Z also said it could require the Glass House to file annual reports detailing areas such as use and operations, and could impose a moratorium (to which the organization already had agreed) essentially restricting the ability to amend further its special operating permit for a set amount of time.

Much of P&Z’s discussion focused on a single word in the Glass House’s proposed new operating permit: ‘public.’

A section that lists important details including hours of operation and maximum visitor volume on the site, originally started with this language: “Tours of the Glass House property shall be subject to the following limitations.” A proposed revision would have changed that sentence to “Public tours of the Glass House property shall be subject to the following limitations.”

Ward, a lawyer, jumped on the word ‘public’ and implied that the Glass House could be smuggling into the permit some form of “private” events without explicitly defining it.

The original permit “only talked about ‘tours’ and ‘events,’ it did not distinguish ‘private’ and ‘public,’ ” Ward said.

“Only public tours and public events. No definition of private, but private is now excluded by the special permit if we were to adopt the modifications as requested. There is no definition of what is private and what is public.”

Goodwin took issue with Ward’s interpretation in what amounted to a rather passionate exchange, by P&Z standards.

Saying that the Glass House “has an extremely good record,” Goodwin noted that the neighbors who addressed P&Z at public hearings came out four in favor of the organization’s plans and four against.

“Usually when we hear an ‘institutional’ application—forgive my terminology—the neighbors tend to be all against,” Goodwin said.

Here’s what followed:

Ward: Frankly, I don’t think the neighbors understood what this application says because they didn’t understand what the difference is between ‘public’ and ‘private.’ They didn’t understand that all private tours or events are no longer covered, they could be of any size and any time.

Goodwin: By the way, I do not agree with you.

Ward: How could you not agree? Look at the language. That is what the language says.

Goodwin: I read the application and what they are asking for is a specific request and I don’t see this ‘public–private,’ what I do see—

Ward:—John, look at [condition number] five—

Goodwin:—what I do see is they do have the ability to bring people on the property. And quite frankly what I say to that is I say, ‘Fine, you just can’t have public tours for that day.’

Ward: John, this is—

Goodwin:—Dick, I’ve been through it. I looked through all of these—

Ward:—Number five! Look at the first word! ‘Public’ tours.

Papp: That is easy to remedy, you just insert ‘public and private’ and then done.

Ward: Thank you.

Goodwin: But Dick, if that’s the extent of the issue then we’re arguing over nothing.

Ward: If you don’t make that change, you are going to have Academy Bus tours driving down there.

Goodwin: But you are assuming that they’re bad actors.

Ward: No I’m not.

Goodwin: You just said that they’re going to be sending in Academy buses.

Ward: Well, they could.

Goodwin: Then fine, let’s fix the terminology but quite frankly I would be shocked, based on their historical behavior. Quite frankly, I think it’s probably a wording oversight.

P&Z Secretary Jean Grzelecki said she was “uncomfortable” with the talk about public versus private.

“That does suggest a deviousness on their part that does not really exist,” she told Ward.

Goodwin and Ward also disagreed on whether and how often the Glass House would be required to come before P&Z for approval of some special events where more than 50 people would attend. Ward noted that the organization has never availed itself of the ability to get that approval under its current permit, so it follows that the Glass House hasn’t had a need for such events.

Goodwin questioned whether the Glass House needed to “come in front of us every time they want to do something,” and characterized Ward’s position as such.

“No, John, that is an exaggeration,” Ward answered. “They have had the right to come before us any time they wanted to go above 50. They have had that right for 18 years. They have never needed it, they have never come before us. So it’s not something where we have ever been overloaded with requests. Apparently their events tend to go less than 50.”

Asked by Goodwin whether he felt any time the Glass House had an event with 50-plus people, they need to come before the full commission as opposed to, say, the town planner, Ward answered: “Why not?”

Goodwin suggested that it’s because the Glass House requires greater flexibility than that.

This exchange followed:

Goodwin: They have a good track record and I think we should give them the flexibility to do more things without coming up in front of us when they have to.

Ward: But they have never had to. So they apparently don’t need much flexibility.

Goodwin: Well then why did they ask for it?

Ward: Beats me.
Goodwin: Well then maybe you should have asked them that question.

Ward toward the end of the discussion on the Glass House offered to go to the town planner’s office this week and help draft the final version of the permit himself prior to Thursday’s P&Z meeting—a suggestion met with resistance and ultimately rejected.

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