Grace Farms aims to clarify purpose at first public hearing
Published 1:13 pm, Wednesday, November 30, 2016
NEW CANAAN — It was either a misrepresentation or a misunderstanding in 2012 between the Planning and Zoning Commission and Grace Farms, depending upon who you ask.
The misrepresentation - alleged by some members of the commission - has to do with an organization that, at the time of its original application, was perceived by many in town as primarily a religious institution and has since shifted to more liberal foundational uses.
The misunderstanding — alleged by Grace Farms — has to do with a fledgling philanthropic organization, never a religious institution, attempting to anticipate activity without the benefit of operational experience.
The new permit, according to Attorney Ed O’Hanlon, of Stamford-based Robinson Cole, “does not increase the intensity of use on the property, it does not change, it does not alter at all, Grace Farms Foundation’s commitment to a low-intensity use of that 70-plus acre site or its intention to make it available to the public as a place of peace and repose.”
Instead, O’Hanlon said Grace Farms hopes to better refine the uses under which the Foundation is operating.
It was suggested that Grace Farms file an amended special permit, better encapsulating the scope of activity on site, over the summer after a slew of complaints from neighbors led to an investigation by then-Town Planner Steve Kleppin. He concluded that foundational uses, originally meant to be ancillary to religious uses, had become most prevalent.
O’Hanlon, however, argued that though the frequency of foundational events might be higher than religious events, the number of visitors was significantly less compared to the 700-person church service each Sunday.
Grace Farms also argued, in a series of presentations by the leaders of their five foundational initiatives (Nature, Arts, Justice, Community, Faith), for the importance of the work taking place on campus.
Members of the commission acknowledged, and consultants confirmed, that certain anticipated problems, such as traffic and declining real estate value of neighboring homes, have proven to be mostly non-issues. Still, commissioners expressed concern about the ways in which use of the facility had expanded in Grace Farms’ first year of operation, as well as about further expansion should the permit be approved.
“By nature, institutions tend to grow,” Chairman John Goodwin said. “How do we, just hypothetically, if we were to approve this application as is, what is there to prevent greater use of the property?”
In the interest of time (the meeting did not adjourn until well after midnight), public comment was not allowed at the hearing, which will continue at the commission’s regular meeting on Dec. 20.