Grace Farms seeks to distinguish between Foundation and Church
Updated 11:55 am, Friday, October 7, 2016
NEW CANAAN — An important distinction exists between foundation and church, according to Grace Farms, while others say that line is blurry.
In an amended special permit filed with the Planning and Zoning Department, Grace Farms seeks to make that distinction clear, especially in regard to religious and foundational activities taking place on the Lukes Wood Road property.
The reapplication comes after a year of complaints about usage from neighbors on both the New Canaan and New York border with Grace Farms, an angry letter from Pound Ridge’s town manager, and an investigation conducted by Town Planner Steve Kleppin into whether or not Grace Farms had run afoul of the guidelines in its original permit.
Kleppin found issues with usage. Based on analysis of Grace Farms’ event calendar, foundational events seemed to outnumber church events in the first year of operation. At the conclusion of that investigation, in a June 26 letter, Kleppin suggested Grace Farms submit an amended permit that better encapsulates the range and scope of usage on site.
Kleppin’s findings, however, are explained in O’Hanlan’s permit as symptoms of a growing organization in its inaugural year.
“Any perceived lack of specificity in events on the part of the Foundation in 2012-13, as cited by the Town Planner in the Letter, can be ascribed to the fact that Grace Farms in 2012-13 had not yet been built, and the Foundation had not yet then begun its activities, especially in contrast to the Church, which had existed for over a decade,” the permit application reads.
Throughout the permit, O’Hanlan maintains Grace Farms has been working mostly within the limits of its permit, and attempts to clarify a misunderstanding between the public, the Planning and Zoning Commission and Grace Farms regarding the difference between foundational and religious use.
In one passage, the application quotes language used by Kleppin in his letter, in which he suggests Planning and Zoning was under the impression they were “... approving a church but with a more defined and perhaps more robust outreach program through the Foundation.” O’Hanlan, however, states the original 2012-13 permit did not feature language suggesting use by the foundation would be ancillary to that of the church. Rather, it was the foundation, as a charitable, and not religious, institution, that applied for permitting, and therefore, Grace Farms should not be limited to the uses normally reserved for a church, the application states.
Despite this claim that Grace Farms functions primarily as a foundation, the application does, however, maintain that the majority of visitors to the facility come for religious reasons. Estimations made by Grace Farms on the number of visitors to the property from Oct. 15, 2015 (the opening) to Aug. 31 state that 72 percent of people come for church-related activities and that the total number of visitors and events represent “manifestly low-intensity use overall,” based on a traffic study included in the application and conducted by Fairfield’s Frederick P. Clark Associates.
Addressing concerns raised by neighbors that the presence of Grace Farms would negatively impact real estate values, a market study conducted by Wellspeak, Dugas and Kane of Stamford concluded that, “... the ongoing activities conducted at Grace Farms Foundation are deemed to be low intensity uses relative to the size of the site. Based on our analysis of individual resales, we have concluded that these activities do not have an adverse impact on the real estate values of the immediate surrounding properties.”
Additional permitting changes requested by Grace Farms includes restrictions on hours. Under new permitting, Grace Farms would close at dark Tuesday through Saturday and no later than 10 p.m. on occasions when events are held after dark, an hour earlier than the previously stipulated closing timing.
The application also asks that tours, which were not mentioned in the original document but have been taking place at the facility, be allowed. Tours, according to the application, are the only on-site activity that turns a profit and are beneficial in that they help to manage the influx of visitors to the area.
In defense of what many neighbors have deemed a “restaurant” — a cafe that serves lunch and light snacks throughout the day — the application maintains the cafe is more similar to a school mess hall or cafeteria than a restaurant and that its uses are typically related to church activities.
“Indeed, the offering and sharing of food is a significant part of the separate spiritual missions of the Foundation and the Church,” O’Hanlan wrote.
Also, O’Hanlan wrote Grace Farms operates the cafe at a loss, and would be willing to let the town planner look at a financial overview of the cafe annually. Grace Farms did, however, request the authority to raise funds and rent out space to organizations to offset costs of maintaining the 80-acre facility.
In terms of events, the application states they are “... minimal in impact and consistent with the core initiatives communicated originally.” It proposes the ability for Grace Farms to host four “large community events,” at which they would expect more than 700 visitors, to be approved individually ahead of time by Planning and Zoning.
The application is less an attempt on the part of Grace Farms to compromise with its detractors than it is an attempt to justify the legality of its actions over the course of its first year, namely by stressing the textual and functional distinctions between the foundation and the church.
“This application today, made with the benefit of the hindsight that nearly a year’s activity on site has provided, is filed because that distinction between a religious institution and a charitable institution is an important one when it comes to the exercise of philanthropy and to perception in the community,” the document says.