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Debate rages on over New Canaan's Grace Farms at zoning meeting

Published 5:42 pm, Wednesday, December 19, 2012
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Lawyers, neighbors and residents, about 70 in all, crowded into the New Canaan Nature Center on Tuesday night to voice their concerns over the proposed Grace Farms project at Tuesday night's Planning and Zoning Commission meeting.

Neighbors complained that the Grace Farms plans locate large parking lots too close to their property, and that the church will cause enormous traffic problems on the small roads around the site.

Timothy Curt, of 1218 Smith Ridge Road, said Grace Farms, also on Smith Ridge Road, had moved a parking lot further away from one neighbor's property, but closer to his.

"It does seem that the plans have been changed, not in necessarily a neighborly way," he said. "The proposed parking area is at an elevation where particularly at nighttime, the cars would shine their headlights directly into my bedroom. That's not a particularly interesting concept to me."

Neighbors also had complaints about changes to the views they currently enjoy and wondered about landscaping work that could be done to hide things like parking lots. William Hennessey, the lawyer for the residents of 1328 Smith Ridge Road, said that changes could affect the property value of his clients. Grace Farms has proposed a $50 million modern church, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architecture firm SANAA.

"I want to ask about the visual effect of the church," Hennessey said. "It's 650 feet long, it's a beautiful building, but we need to understand what visual impact it will have, and if it's adverse, what can be done to change it. What impact it will have on their view, and their property values ... . My clients' property has a beautiful deck and looks out over the wetlands corridor ... . The effect of this is that as you stand in the backyard and look out, you will see the full extent of the building," he said at the meeting.

Also at issue was whether the Grace Farms church would extend beyond the bounds of a normal church and have the types of events, such as concerts, readings and speakers, that would make it more than just a church. Neighbor Sanjit Shah, who has been at the forefront of opposition to the church, believes it will.

"Right now the intent of the Grace Farms Foundation is to operate something totally different (from a church)," Shah said. "The religious use will be only a minor part of a philanthropic use. Tax records indicate that they've operated as a philanthropic organization since 2010, and as a result there is a violation of your (zoning) regulations."

On behalf of Grace Farms, co-founder Bob Prince said the church would do only what it is permitted to do. He also noted that the foundation was asking for the same approvals they had asked for five years ago. He made that point by reading the exact transcript he did in 2007 as an opening. He said that the church is meant to be a peaceful place, not a hub of activity, and would not present a traffic problem.

"We now have about 450 to 500 (for services) on Sundays," Prince said. "The traffic study was for 900 people, so I don't think that will present an option. A number of things will be 10, 20 people, like Alcoholics Anonymous, that type of thing. We want (Grace Farms) to be a peaceful respite. We live such busy, crazy lives. We want a place where you could read a book, go for a walk, have lunch with your friends. The idea is peace, and that would be completely undermined (by large gatherings)."

Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Lazlo Papp asked Grace Farms to prepare a list of proposed activities and their projected size. He said that discussion would be continued to the January meeting, when that information could be looked at.

twoods@bcnnew.com; 203-972-4413; @Woods_NCNews