Neighbors address Grace Farms issues
NEW CANAAN — From the dining room window of Patty Kekedjian’s Lukes Wood Road home, the main parking lot of Grace Church is just visible in the daylight through a cluster of trees. But at night, Kekedjian said, headlights from cars exiting the facility shine toward her home and into the windows of her teenage children’s bedrooms.
She and many other homeowners whose properties surround the 80-acre parcel of land that is Grace Farms have made similar complaints in regard to light and sound pollution, traffic and, most notably, the range of uses at the facility since it opened to the public last October.
Among the issues represented by Kleppin in a letter to Sharon Prince, president of the Grace Farms Foundation, were for-profit activities, such as tai-chi and cooking classes, the hosting of community events, like a Memorial Day Barbeque and Winter Outing that, Kleppin wrote, “while not expressly prohibited, are not indicated as permissible either,” and use as a multi-organizational conference center.
In the lead-up to an October Planning and Zoning meeting that will address Grace Farms’ permitting, the debate around Grace Farms continues to swirl, with many rushing to defend what they see as a major asset to the town, and others hoping to scale back ancillary uses deemed inappropriate for a religious institution.
Grace Farms issued this statement: “Grace Farms Foundation is confident that we are operating within the scope of the special permit and we look forward to addressing questions at the Planning and Zoning hearing in October.”
Despite the issue of lighting and early problems during construction with builders, in which trucks were parked in and around her driveway, Kekedjian is not overly critical of Grace Farms, which is home to the nonprofit Grace Farms Foundation and accommodates the nondenominational Grace Church, which holds services on site every Sunday.
She has been encouraged of late by the reconciliatory efforts of Sharon Prince, president of the Grace Farms Foundation.
“Sharon agreed to meet with my husband recently to discuss some of our issues. They’ve definitely worked with us on some of our complaints,” Kekedjian said.
For example, more trees are in the process of being planted, according to a representative of the foundation, to better obstruct neighbors from light and sound coming from Grace.
Other neighbors, too, noted a willingness on the part of Grace Farms to cooperate. A Lewisboro man, who wished to remain anonymous, said when he reached out to Grace Farms about an “eerie” chiming sculpture audible from his property, they agreed without hassle to lower the volume.
Still, detractors remain ardent in their opposition.
At the end of July, Pound Ridge, N.Y., Town Supervisor Richard Lyman authored a letter to the Planning and Zoning Commission decrying the lack of input sought from neighboring New York during the ongoing Grace Farm debate. He stated a continued concern about Grace Farms’ impact on traffic, though he acknowledged only having received one such complaint in the time since it opened to the public.
Kleppin, too, commended Grace Farms’ negligible impact on traffic in a June letter addressed to Prince. “Interestingly, we have not heard to date about complaints related to traffic since the site has opened,” Kleppin wrote.
Lyman, however, especially took issue with the performances hosted in the 700-seat amphitheater, known as the Sanctuary, and the function of the cafeteria.
“A recurring recommendation I hear is that ‘you must really go to Grace Farms for lunch, it is terrific’ which seems a rather upscale if not perverted twist on the proverbial church basement soup kitchen. Thank you, I’ll pass,” Lyman wrote.
Similarly, a Pound Ridge neighbor who wished not to be named, said she worried about Grace Farms’ “exploded mission creep,” and called it a “blight” on the community.
Some New York neighbors also wondered whether their tax dollars were being used to pay a New York state cop that patrols Lukes Wood Road every Sunday, though Grace Farms said it covers expenses for New York and New Canaan police officers on Sunday mornings.
Donald Bissonnette, who, along with his wife and eight Smith Ridge Road neighbors, sent two letters to Planning and Zoning in June listing their grievances, said his primary problem with Grace Farms is damage to wetlands on the property of his daughter — who lives next door — allegedly done during construction.
“My daughter lives next door and she’s the one that’s impacted quite a bit,” Bissonnette said during a phone call. “I don’t like to look at my backyard and see the way her pond looks.”
Accusations have also been made, most notably by Lyman in his letter to Planning and Zoning, that Grace Farms deceived the commission when originally applying for the special permit by downplaying the wide-ranging programs that would ultimately take center stage. Kleppin, to that point, wrote in his letter that he believed the commission in 2013 thought they were “approving a Church but with a more defined and perhaps more robust outreach program through the Foundation.”
He referenced a chart of programming presented by Grace Farms at that time that proposed church activities outnumbering foundational activities three-to- one. Based on his investigation this summer, Kleppin said that ratio is closer to one-to-one.
Town Councilman and local real estate agent John Engel, however, said that in terms of continuing to draw people to New Canaan, programming like that offered at a one-of-a-kind facility like Grace Farms is hugely important to the town.
“I do not believe they misled Planning and Zoning. I do think they’ve evolved from what they thought they were going to be, so I think it’s fair to review the permit. But Grace Farms is an incredible asset, and I think we’ve just barely scratched the surface on what it’s going to do for this town,” Engel said.
For Kekedjian, as for others, a more clearly defined description as to what exactly Grace Farms is going to do for the town would go a long way to ease tensions.
“I think people are just wondering what’s next,” Kekedjian said.