After several month hiatus, Grace Farms back before New Canaan Planning and Zoning
NEW CANAAN — Grace Farms Foundation is back before Planning and Zoning, but confusion remains.
It was five months since the foundation withdrew its special permit application in January. On Tuesday, Grace again made its case for an amended special permit, this time with a text change to zoning regulations that would allow for multiple principal uses.
However, the best way in which to encapsulate the scope of Grace’s work — which is characterized as religious, club or organizational and eleemosynary in its application — remains a puzzler.
“I do feel like we’re trying to fit a bit of a square peg into a round hole. Because I think the various activities that the foundation undertakes doesn’t necessarily fit into our definitions,” said Glenn Chalder, president of the Simsbury-based firm Planimetrics, who the town has hired as a consultant.
In the months between meetings, it was the recommendation of the town, and the expressed intention of Grace Farms Foundation, to work with neighbors to resolve issues regarding intensity, appropriate tree coverage, light and noise pollution and security. A handful of neighbors remain unsatisfied.
Commissioner Dan Radman opined, for instance, that no matter the benefit provided to the community by Grace, the size and the scope of the foundation’s reach was not identified in the original 2013 special permit.
“Grace Farms is not in any business, it has sought no advantage. If it is overeager to do its philanthropic mission — guilty as charged,” said Attorney Edward O’Hanlan, of Stamford-based Robinson + Cole, in defense of Grace, repeating an argument that at the time it was issued its 2013 permit, the fledgling organization could not conceive of the ways in which it would grow.
A debate also arose over whether or not multiple principal uses on a single property are permitted in town. Grace Farms sited properties like St. Mark’s Church, which is a religious institution, as well as a nursery school, and town parks like Irwin and Waveny that have multiple uses.
Neighbors, however, especially Jennifer Holme and David Markatos, of 1328 Smith Ridge Road, have called the principal use debate a “threshold issue,” and sought the opinion of Judge Robert Fuller, a Connecticut land use expert, who refuted Grace’s assertion that multiple principal uses were permissible according to state and town regulations.
“The definition of principal use is the primary, single use for the property, and that’s why the word accessory, or ancillary, or secondary uses have been used all throughout this process,” Radman said.
However, according to Chalder, in earlier versions of New Canaan’s zoning regulations,, multiple uses were apparently permitted, but subsequent revisions of the text have made the issue less clear.
“In 1990 zoning regulations of New Canaan, it did call out that you could have one or more special permit uses on a property,” Chalder, who worked with the commission in 2000 on a rewrite of the regulations, explained. “What was explicit in the 1990 regulations became implicit in the current regulations, and has caused us now to be in this situation.”
“I think my first piece of advice for you is to make sure you supercede and replace the 2013 special permit because the lack specificity in there led to assumptions on the part of the community and assumptions on the part of the church on what was permitted,” Chalder said.
Grace, for their part, provided an outline of future plans, capping certain kinds of events, cutting down on hours the 365 Lukes Wood Rd. facility is open to the public and setting up a 24 hour neighbor hot line to which complaints can be made.
But the size and number of events remained an issue.
In its application, Grace set parameters that would allow the organization to host 12 “large” events of 700 attendees or more, 24 “regular” events between 300 and 700 attendees, and 24 “sustainability” events under 300 attendees. They suggested also that the site be closed whenever an event had more 500 people on site.
Chalder and members of the commission expressed some concern over the high limits for these events and lack of regulations, for instance, barring multiple large events from occurring several days in a row.
Because of the length of Grace’s presentation, which included remarks from the organization’s President Sharon Prince, the public was not allowed to weigh in at the meeting, though another will be scheduled in the coming weeks.
“I think as we get familiar with what the foundation and church are doing, and they get familiar with the community’s expectations, we can find a middle ground,” Chalder said.