A growing Connecticut church on the New Canaan-Lewisboro border is causing headaches for some local residents and has dragged three towns and their elected leaders into a dispute, including Lewisboro Supervisor Peter Parsons.
On Tuesday, Dec. 18, the New Canaan Planning and Zoning Commission again postponed a decision on whether to approve a proposed project by Grace Property Holdings LLC, or Grace Community Church, at the former Windsome Farms property on Lukes Wood Road and Smith Ridge Road (also known as Route 123).
New Canaan P&Z Chairman Laszlo Papp told the New Canaan Advertiser he hopes a decision will be made at the Tuesday, Jan. 29, meeting.
Grace Community Church is on Lukes Wood Road in New Canaan, which, separated by a few hundred yards and a state line, becomes Puddin Hill Road in Vista and W Road in Pound Ridge.
If approved by the commission, a building, known as the River, will be constructed on a sliver of the 75-acre Grace Farms property that the foundation is preserving for the community as a permanent open space and sanctuary. Grace Community Church had originally proposed building a 1,200-person sanctuary on the property, but that has been scaled back to one that would hold 900 — with seating for 700.
At the Dec. 18 meeting Mr. Parsons said — and has said in the past — that West Road and Puddin Hill Road residents would be burdened by church traffic and suggested that the church entrance/exit be on Route 123.
Like Mr. Parsons, Pound Ridge Town Supervisor Gary Warshauer called for the entrance/exit to be on Route 123.
“The narrow, windy condition of Puddin Hill Road, which is constrained by trees and stone walls, cannot handle the additional traffic that the proposed church and other community activities that are planned there will bring,” Mr. Warshauer wrote in a letter to the New Canaan Planning and Zoning Commission on Oct. 12.
“Furthermore, the potential for cut-through traffic onto West Road, as articulated by the members of our Planning Board who attended your September 2007 meeting, is something that we will undoubtedly have to deal with if this application is approved as proposed,” he said.
Sanjit Shah, an attorney who lives on Puddin Hill Road in Vista, has protested the project as presented from the beginning in 2007. His main concern is also the increased traffic the project could cause on Puddin Hill Road, and he believes the New Canaan P&Z Commission is adamantly opposed to the idea of locating the entrance/exit on Route 123, he said. Mr. Shah told the New Canaan Advertiser that there has been an increase in the church’s population and that the new design will generate more traffic than was originally anticipated. He said at previous meetings that in 2007 membership of Grace Church was at 805 and now it is at approximately 1,000.
“My road will bear the brunt of the traffic, and according to the New Canaan town engineer, who gave testimony in November 2007, people are going to be stuck in traffic on their way to church,” he said. “There will be a traffic jam on Sundays on Puddin Hill Road.”
He also said that the 2007 traffic report found that church traffic would change the character of his neighborhood, turning off-peak hours, particularly on Sundays, into peak traffic hours.
In 2007 and 2008, New Canaan P&Z approved a special permit and amendment allowing a 900-seat sanctuary on that site. Since then, some residents from New Canaan and neighboring New York communities appealed P&Z’s decisions in Superior Court. The Superior Court dismissed the appeals earlier last year and found P&Z’s approvals in 2007 and 2008 met regulation requirements. The appellate court denied a further request from plaintiffs.
Since a public hearing in October, Mr. Shah has hinted at taking legal action if P&Z approved the amended permit as is.
“If they do approve the amended permit, I will bring action in Superior Court,” Mr. Shah said. “My main concern is traffic. One of my objections is that after five and a half years they’re not submitting an updated traffic report. With increased usage, causing increased traffic, they should submit a new traffic report.”
All about quantity
Joseph Hammer, Grace Property Holdings’ attorney, has maintained that since a comprehensive traffic report was conducted in 2007 and since the commission approved it then and determined a new study would be needed only if it went over the 900 occupancy, there is no need for another report.
In documents submitted to the New Canaan P&Z by Mr. Shah in 2012, a number of Grace Church newsletters and a Business Insider article are cited as evidence of the church’s burgeoning membership beyond the 900 mark, furthering the argument that a new traffic report is necessary, he said.
Sharon Prince, president of the Grace Farms Foundation, said the church does not have formal members but does have estimates on its active congregants.
“Currently we average around 450 people most Sundays,” she said.
She said that despite the multi-year litigation, the church’s intention is to be a good neighbor to Lewisboro and contribute to the safety of the community in northern New Canaan.
“Already, at the request of Fire Marshal Fred Baker, we are installing at our own expense of $60,000 a dry fire hydrant which will protect local homes, even though we don’t need this fire hydrant for our own property because we already have our own 50,000 gallon water tank to protect our property,” she said.
The building and use
The River building was designed by the internationally renowned architecture firm Sanaa of Tokyo. Ryue Nishizawa of Sanaa said the site would accommodate a library, dining room, gym, athletic field, and vegetable garden. The River is being designed in harmony with the landscape and would be constructed from glass, concrete, steel, and wood. A long, single roof, some 10 feet above the surface, would twist and turn with the landscape.
“The new design is so radical, that in and of itself is going to be an attraction,” Mr. Shah said, adding that it would likely lead to an increase in traffic not already accounted for.
Mr. Shah also emphasized that the Grace Community Church should be required to seek out an additional special use permit from the New Canaan P&Z Commission because of the church’s philanthropic arm, the Grace Farms Foundation.
“The River Building and the land on which it is to be constructed will serve as an international philanthropic foundation and research facility in addition to serving as a church,” he wrote, citing documentation by Grace Church.
“Because Grace LLC and/or the foundation seek to use the Grace Farms property for purposes other than a church, a new special permit is required,” he said.
During the meeting, Bob Prince, a founder of the church, said the church’s intentions over the past five years have not changed, according to the minutes. Mr. Papp said the question before the commission was whether the activities of the church described in 2008, when the original permit was granted, are identical to the church’s activities today. P&Z Commissioner Kent Turner then asked about the size of the activities.
Mr. Prince told commissioners the largest activity would be 400 to 500 people attending Sunday morning church services and that the foundation would host church-related activities only as previously permitted. Laszlo Papp, chairman of the New Canaan Planning and Zoning Commission, asked the foundation to provide all the parameters of the church’s activities, including their size, intensity and timing.
Mr. Papp told the Advertiser the commission is still facing the same original use of the building, but that there are still questions regarding attendance and how it correlates with increased traffic, which is why the hearing was continued to Jan. 29.
-with additional reporting by Reece Alvarez