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Final arguments made in New Canaan's Grace Farms marathon P&Z hearing

Published 4:10 pm, Wednesday, January 30, 2013

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  • Grace Farms Foundation President Sharon Prince addresses the Planning and Zoning Commission Tuesday night, Jan. 29 at the New Canaan Nature Center. Photo: Tyler Woods
    Grace Farms Foundation President Sharon Prince addresses the Planning and Zoning Commission Tuesday night, Jan. 29 at the New Canaan Nature Center. Photo: Tyler Woods

 

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Tuesday night's Planning and Zoning Commission public hearing was the final opportunity to discuss the special zoning permit application made by Grace Property Holdings LLC for its plans for the design of The River building and lighting at Grace Farms.

The meeting concluded a three-month hearing process, and the various neighbors, many of whom retained lawyers, presented their final arguments in a session that lasted more than three hours.

Many of the neighbors' concerns centered around lighting and traffic congestion. William Hennessey, lawyer for the Markatos family, of 28 Smith Ridge Road, offered 18 conditions for the Planning and Zoning Commission to impose on the Grace Farms permit. While the commission placed conditions on the project in its 2007 and 2008 permits before any plans were drawn up, Hennessey argued that in light of the developments, there should be new conditions as well.

"It's a campus being built: it's a sanctuary, a gymnasium, dining hall, a library. It's a big, big project. And we're not saying it shouldn't happen, but we are saying it should be regulated," he said.

The family hired landscape architect Eric Rains to analyze the effects the lighting would have.

"A nine-foot-tall pane of glass, 645 feet around, is what we're dealing with," Rains said.

While the requested regulations were not made public, references to them included conditions about the lighting of the building and the types of events that could take place at the facility.

At the conclusion of the presentation, Planning and Zoning Commissioner Dick Ward asked if the Grace Farms Foundation was agreeable to the conditions.

"We believe the applicant is agreeable to none of them," Hennessey responded.

Other complaints came from attorney Marjorie Shansky, who represents three families in the area in question -- the Coopers, the Abels, and Mary Shah. Shanksy argued that the project is now more involved and larger than what had been previously approved.

"They (Grace Farms) came to this commission with an institutional use that is materially larger than that which had been (given)," she argued. "It represents materially more construction than was approved. There's 154 percent more construction in 2013 than in 2007."

Shanksy concluded that the increase in size and scope of the church warrants a new traffic study. The traffic study completed in 2007 said even the maximum of 900 people attending Sunday services would not present a traffic problem on the roads around Grace Farms. The study has been upheld in court after a previous legal challenge from Shah's husband, Sanjit Shah.

The attorney representing Grace Farms Property Holdings LLC, Joseph Hammer, argued that most of the issues brought forth rehashed arguments that already have been settled.

"(The project) has already been approved as a religious institution," he said. "Before you, the focus needs to be the design of the structure. You did not intend this to be a rerun of the underlying special permit, therefore it would not be proper to reopen traffic, or other issues. Courts have rejected the arguments of those same people who are making them now."

Hammer pushed back on the conditions that some neighbors requested, saying that the church accommodated where it could, but had its limits.

"I want to reiterate -- Grace is not contemplating any new or different use than from its first application or from what other churches do on a daily basis. The conditions you're being asked to impose would conflict with the church's ability to act as a church and from the permit they've received," he argued.

Hammer went on to introduce several experts, each of whom spoke to specific alterations the church has made to its design and landscaping to placate neighbors' concerns.

A lighting designer, Gabe Williams, said that the 20 to 30 trees around The River, which had been planned to be illuminated, would now only be illuminated on The River side of the trees, not on the exterior side that faces neighbors. He said that the building's lights would turn off at 11 p.m. and that interior lights would be on a sensor and shut off automatically if no one was in the room.

Further, in a presentation for which the assembly room was darkened for the use of a projector, Williams made the point that the lighting of the building would in most cases amount to between .1 and one candle feet. A candle foot is the amount of light perceptible from a distance of one foot from a lit candle.

"Most of the residents are viewing it from 500 to 1,000 feet away. I want to reiterate that what we're doing is very subtle. Most of it is .1-foot candles," he said.

A landscape architect from the firm Olin presented a plan for adding evergreen trees mostly around the perimeter of the property to block light from the building and parking lots from hitting neighbors' houses. She explained that she felt the tree cover would be more than sufficient and that neighbors' proposals amounted to a wall of trees around The River building.

For nearly the entirety of the arguments and presentations, Planning and Zoning Chairman Laszlo Papp sat stoically, giving each presenter a full hearing. In an email Wednesday morning, Papp said the commission may not decide on the fate of the permit until March.

"We have 65 days to make a decision," he wrote. "A fair amount of time will be needed to sort out all the testimonies provided. I doubt that this can be accomplished at the February regular meeting. We may have a special meeting sometime in March to deal with this."

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