Paul Ostling and his attorney wanted to talk.
It was when Grace Farms and the New Canaan Planning & Zoning Commission were continually sparring over a wide range of issues concerning the abutting properties. I was covering the story for the New Canaan Advertiser newspaper. Ostling, a Grace neighbor, decided to go into detail about what it was like to be in his position.
A lawyer himself and former partner at Ernst & Young, Ostling says he felt tricked by Grace Farms’ stated intentions from the very beginning. He and his wife, Danita, had purchased a $5.3 million New Canaan home in 2007 that at the time was next to a horse farm.
“We bought a house five miles outside of town,” he says. “It was kind of in nowheresville, if you know what I mean. We found out they [Grace Farms] were going to build a church. I was concerned because the parking lot was going to be near our fence. So we were invited up and met [Grace Farms President] Sharon Prince [and other Grace officials]. They were lovely people. We talked about it, my wife and I. How do you fight people who want to open a church?
“We explained our concerns. They said it was only a church, with 700 people expected on Sundays. You buy a four-acre house that’s miles out of town, pay $60,000 a year in taxes, there’s not even a store nearby; it’s what you’re looking for.
“We began negotiating with them.
We got a property valuation and were told our house was going to go down in value. They said just as a church [next door] our property was going to lose more than $1 million in value.
“I go to church, and we said yes to a church, and yes to losing property value. But I didn’t say yes to a non-church [Grace Farms Foundation] that has a full-service kitchen and walking tours next to my property line without any security.
“What I resent the most is being made to look like some ugly NIMBY [not in my backyard] person because I said yes to a church.”
Ostling pointed out that New Canaan’s town planner at the time, Steve Kleppin, agreed Grace Farms was in violation of its special permit and needed to request modification from the originally approved Grace Community Church. Five homeowners, including the Ostlings, had sent P&Z a letter insisting Grace Farms was in violation of its permit.
Joseph Rucci, Ostling’s attorney, said his client and other neighbors felt aggrieved over issues that included security, traffic, the environment, privacy and land value. He expressed outrage that the town admitted there were violations but was doing little about it.
“The town has totally abrogated its responsibility,” he says. “If it was anyone else, they’d shut you down; they’d issue a stop order.
“My client agreed and accepted a church. But they don’t have just a church. The tranquility of their property has been seriously impaired by what’s going on there now, illegally. And nobody in town is doing a damn thing about it.
“The town is continuing to allow them [Grace Farms] to increase the use of this property in violation of the existing special permit. They are not protecting the neighbors or the citizens of the town under their own regulations. Where is the town here? They know this is wrong and do nothing? This is supposed to be a church and foundation built on truth and honesty, and that’s what’s missing in this scenario: truth and honesty."
Ostling complained about several things that have still not been fully resolved.
“There are environmental issues, light and noise issues, and walking paths next to my property,” he says. “Am I supposed to hire guards? If the town is going to have thousands of people coming to this area, what’s their responsibility to protect me, and the people who go there?
“If the town decides it’s not going to be just a church, then it better do an awful lot of thinking that takes into account the interests about safety, health, welfare, the environment and pollution to a lot of people. And not just the neighbors at that point.
“They [Grace Farms] baited and switched the town and built a global enterprise. Does the town now decide they want a global enterprise there? If they do then I guess they’ve taken my property.”
Asked to comment on the Ostling and Rucci assertions, they emailed this response:
“Grace Farms Foundation is confident that it is operating within the scope of the special permit, and we look forward to addressing questions at the [next] P&Z hearing. We are committed to respecting the P&Z process, and thus will not comment further.”
That P&Z hearing led to others, until September 2017 when a text amendment was approved by P&Z that would allow Grace Farms Foundation to exist as a charitable organization and a club, in addition to Grace Community Church.
On Nov. 1, 2017, the Ostlings filed a lawsuit in Superior Court in Stamford seeking to have P&Z’s decision overturned, claiming it was made “illegally, arbitrarily, and in an abuse of its discretion” in several ways.