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New Canaan's Stunning Grace Farms Has Drawn Praise — and Controversy

  • 12 min to read
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New Canaan’s 80-acre Grace Farms, which includes a church, foundation, open land and an award-winning $67 million building known as the River due to its winding, dramatic appearance, has received widespread acclaim for undertaking altruistic projects on local, national and global levels. But with infuriated neighbors, outstanding lawsuits and intense engagements with the town’s Planning & Zoning Commission, how it came to be is complicated and controversial ... and not over.

When Robert Prince stepped forward to address the New Canaan Planning & Zoning Commission on the night of Dec. 18, 2012, it seemed like just another resident seeking approval of just another permit under consideration.

It would prove to be anything but.

The request was to finalize design plans for what later became known as the River building on a large parcel of land in New Canaan on the Connecticut/New York border.

And Prince was no ordinary property owner. He was and is co-chief investment officer at Bridgewater Associates in Westport, the world’s largest hedge fund. He works very closely with Ray Dalio, Bridgewater’s founder and one of the wealthiest people in the world.

The vision Prince presented to P&Z members was of a bucolic, pastoral environment the public would be welcome to enjoy, with a large Sunday service and some small-scale meetings and other church- and community-related events.

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Sharon Prince at Grace Farms.

“My wife Sharon and I were among the founding families of Grace Community Church and were also primary organizers of the Grace Farms project,” he said that night. “We want it to be a peaceful respite. We don’t want it to be a busy, crazy place. It would be completely undermined if we organized lots of activities with lots of traffic.”

But as reported by Michael Dinan, owner and editor of the newcanaanite.com news website, the Grace Farms Foundation Certificate of Incorporation included wording that conflicted with what Prince told P&Z. It said activities may include “sponsoring, conducting and supporting conferences, seminars, discussion groups, lectures and other programs to educate the general public about and raise public awareness of faith and the reconciliation of faith, philosophy and science, social justice movements, the arts and culture”; “sponsoring and supporting artistic and cultural activities, including, without limitation, workshops and performances in the areas of music, dance, theatre, and fine arts, lectures and seminars, in order to educate and enrich the general public and the local community”; and “cooperating with other charitable organizations whether local, national, or international, for any of the foregoing purposes.”

Though Grace Farms neighbors and nearby New York burgs expressed trepidation over potential issues such as traffic and security, in 2013 P&Z granted the special permit allowing Grace Farms Foundation to operate and manage Grace Farms, and for Grace Community Church and the public to use the facility.

While the congregation had been holding its Sunday service in a local school auditorium, this would be no group of parishioners struggling to scrape together funds for a no-frills church on the outskirts of town. Well, it would be on the outskirts of town, but it was extremely well-heeled church members who paid $40 million for the acreage of what had been a horse farm, then poured tens of millions of dollars more into creating their vision. What they built has already become renowned.

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Kenyon Adams at Grace Farms.

The River delivered

Construction began in August 2013 and would last for two years. The Tokyo-based Sanaa architectural firm was chosen to design a structure Grace Farms now characterizes as “the fluid integration of inside and outside space, producing environments rich in social and spiritual potential.”

Known as the River because of the way it meanders through the rolling terrain, the building of glass, concrete, steel and wood is in essence a single long roof, which seems to float some 10 to 14 feet above the ground as it twists and turns across the landscape. At the top is the eye-pleasing, state-of-the-art sanctuary/indoor amphitheater.

Winding below are a library, community area where food and drinks are available, tea pavilion, offices and gymnasium/multi-purpose space.

The completed project has drawn unanimous raves and won multiple awards.

“Grace Farms is a new kind of public space,” says Sharon Prince, who is chairwoman and president of Grace Farms Foundation, a private nonprofit organization established in 2009. “From the beginning, we thought about how an open environment with mission-driven architecture could communicate with the world. The River building, with its transparent volumes, abundant communal spaces, and transcendent views of the landscape, provides the ideal environment from which to develop our initiatives of justice, nature, arts, community and faith, leading to new collaborations and opportunities to advance grace and peace in our region and around the world.”

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Grace Farms as seen from overhead

As the building evolved, so too did the foundation, whose board of directors includes Robert and Sharon Prince, Cable and Broadcast Hall of Fame member David Verklin, Yale Center for Faith and Culture Director Dr. Miroslav Volf, and Esquire magazine Editor in Chief Jay Fielden, among others.

Each of the initiatives has a leader, and they often work together on projects.

  • Justice — Initiative director Krishna Patel: “Our focus is to combat modern-day slavery in all its forms through action-oriented strategies and multi-sector partnerships. People are often shocked to learn that since 2008 there have been 634 cases of suspected child trafficking in Connecticut.”
  • Nature — Initiative director J. Mark Fowler: “At Grace Farms we connect kids and families to nature. Our mission is preserving open space and restoring wildlife and wildlife habitat. We’re trying to make nature as exciting for kids as they find video games and television.”
  • Arts — Initiative director Kenyon Adams: “We work at the intersection of the visual, literary and performing arts. We invite inter-disciplinary cohorts who spend time in a workshop addressing an ethical concept. We started with empathy, then focused on awe and silence, with joy next. Performance/art/written works result.”
  • Community — Initiative director Lisa Lynne Kirkpatrick: “I oversee and facilitate the engagement of not-for-profit organizations. We’ve been fortunate to develop partners that have the expertise in the interfaith dialogic realm. And so leveraging those relationships to do some of their programs here has been ideal.”
  • Faith — While the vision for Grace Farms was inspired by Christianity, they say people of all faiths or no faith are welcome, and they hope to build bridges of empathy across lines of religious difference and pursue the common good within a diverse community.

Grace Farms opened in the fall of 2015. It was welcomed by most of the local citizenry as a tremendous addition to New Canaan, especially with its noble humanitarian goals. There have been some impressive events and accomplishments in the relatively short existence.

In 2016 it hosted a seminar, Preventing Another 9/11: The Way Forward, which included MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, Connecticut Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, and Congressman Jim Himes.

Patel, a former federal prosecutor, spearheads the foundation’s involvement against human trafficking. One result was the passage of state legislation enhancing trafficking statutes by increasing investigations and prosecutions. The law was drafted at Grace Farms and signed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in 2016.

On a continuing basis a space grant program includes more than 80 organizations across all initiatives, while a large number of artists, scholars, musicians, dancers and poets have performed and/or worked there in various capacities.

“It was kind of a gift to the town,” says Greg Reilly, editor of the New Canaan Advertiser newspaper. “It’s always been highly regarded, with people coming from far away to visit. They’ve been trying to do their best for others, and it’s hard to criticize that.”

But there was trouble ahead.

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Intensity questioned

“About six months after Grace Farms opened was the first time in a public meeting that someone gave voice to this idea that what was happening there was exceeding what was allowable under the permit P&Z had issued,” says Dinan, who has covered the Grace Farms story from its beginning.

Indeed, Grace Farms Foundation was moving forward with its initiatives that included many meetings, events and activities that some people, including especially eight or so Grace Farms neighbors, believed not to be allowed under the original permit granted by P&Z.

Grace Farms and its neighbors made attempts to work things out in regard to parking lot location, screening, lighting and other issues, with limited success. Things would soon take a turn for the worse as the neighbors formally protested in a group letter to New Canaan P&Z Chairman John Goodwin that Grace Farms violated many times, and in different ways, the permitted use of its site.

“A review of the Grace Farms events calendar makes clear that the vast majority of activities sponsored by the Foundation at the site since October 2015 are not ancillary, or related in any way to the activities of a religious institution,” the letter said.

At a Zoning Board of Appeals meeting in May 2016, then-Town Planner Steve Kleppin said that such activities “may not necessarily be consistent with the terms and conditions of the special permit, and also with what the [P&Z] commission thought they were approving back in 2013.”

In June 2016 Kleppin sent Sharon Prince a letter, saying that after much study and consideration he agreed there were activities at Grace Farms that exceeded what was allowed by their permit.

“A common sentiment I hear expressed is that the property was approved as a church with ancillary uses, but it now appears that the ancillary uses associated with the Foundation have become the principal use, while the church itself is the ancillary use,” he wrote.

He encouraged Grace Farms to submit a modified special permit application that would cover the foundation’s activities.

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Dancer Matthew Rushing performs with trumpet player Ron McCurdy at Grace Farms.

Grace responds

While not admitting any wrongdoing, Grace Farms, through attorney Edward O’Hanlan, filed an application in September 2016 to amend its permit. Countering Kleppin’s assertions, O’Hanlan claimed Grace Farms simply sought to differentiate the religious institution, Grace Community Church, from the charitable institution, Grace Farms Foundation.

“The reason they felt they needed the secular permit, the nonreligious permit, is because governmental entities around the world, like the U.N., [are] prohibited from working with a religious institution,” Reilly says. “That’s why Grace Farms went back [to P&Z]. They need to work with more groups, and to work with more groups they need to be non-religious.”

O’Hanlan said in the application that Grace Farms felt all of its activities “fall within the recognition and grant of authority specifically set forth” in the special permit.

As for Robert Prince’s 2012 statements to P&Z that could be interpreted as conflicting with Grace Farms’ actual outcomes, Grace Farms’ new application noted that “it is the terms of the Special Permit itself, and not the transcript of the proceedings or even the deliberations of P&Z itself — or its ‘consensus’ four years later — that constitute the operative approval.”

Dinan’s take is to the point.

“What Grace Farms said when faced with the argument that they’d won approval on the strength of a promise to be a strictly church-related function was that if the town didn’t get clarification from what they had in mind, too bad,” he says. “Let’s get clarification now.”

In the build-up to what would be a long and contentious P&Z meeting to consider the Grace Farms request to amend its permit, attorney Amy Zabetakis, representing several Grace neighbors, sent a letter to P&Z saying, “The current application seeks such an expansive set of activities with so few limitations that it is in essence seeking formal approval to convert Grace Farms from a home for a church, under the existing special permit, into an operation with virtually unrestricted capacity to pursue a myriad of nonprofit and for-profit and revenue-raising initiatives.”

Shortly before the scheduled P&Z meeting in January 2017, Grace Farms temporarily withdrew its amended special permit application, citing as the reason P&Z’s retaining of a new planner to study the application.

At the same time, the neighbors got a public boost when New Canaan First Selectman Rob Mallozzi III, the town’s highest-ranking elected official, said when speaking to the New Canaan Men’s Club that he thought the organization had gone well beyond its original stated intentions.

“Clearly when that group came before Planning & Zoning they came as a church with ancillary activity,” he said. “And that appears to be different than what’s going on now. So I think a review is in order. As much as we enjoy what they are bringing to the community, the fact is, I believe, when I look at the tapes, that they came in under one pretense and it’s morphed into something more.

“I think they’re doing the right thing, and the town is doing the right thing by saying come on back, lay the cards on the table, let’s see how intense the use is, and then we’ll decide. I’m happy to go down that road rather than their continuing the animosity.”

Months went by, and in April 2017 Grace Farms decided that instead of seeking an amended special permit, it would ask that a text amendment be made to the New Canaan zoning regulations, allowing it to add charitable organization and club to the already approved religious-institution status. Its neighbors were furious over what they considered an end-around by Grace Farms to get its way [see Land Use sidebar].

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Grace Farms Foundation's future venue under construction in October 2014.

P&Z’s ruling

Finally, in late September 2017, after having voted 5-4 in favor of amending the zoning regulations, P&Z unanimously voted to grant Grace Farms Foundation a new special permit allowing multiple principal uses, but included 100 conditions that needed to be met.

P&Z said in its resolution that “based on the significant public comments in the record, the Commission finds that Grace Farms Foundation provides substantial economic, social and cultural benefits to the community through its activities and in making the property accessible to the public.”

Responding the next month and claiming its rights as a religious organization were being violated, Grace Farms sued the town of New Canaan over the 100 conditions.

Dinan wasn’t surprised by the tactic.

“It’s not unexpected after such a major application to have these administrative appeals,” he says. “The approval from P&Z came with restrictions like limitations on the number and size of events, and no for-profit, revenue-generating events.

“The only recourse anyone has once P&Z makes its decision is to go to the courts. P&Z tries to be as accommodating to both sides as it can. Which means that in some ways both sides are happy and in some ways both sides are unhappy. In this case there are lawsuits from both sides.”

The Grace Farms tact was not wholly unexpected because back in November 2016, at a particularly contentious P&Z meeting, O’Hanlan had cautioned that, if necessary, Grace Farms could and would invoke its religious designation to try to legally trump opposition to its expanding agenda.

“You can’t tell someone they can only exercise their religion so many times without getting into constitutional problems,” he said at that meeting. “Grace Farms now operates under a religious institution. It could rest on that. Your attorney could suggest you couldn’t stop it from that point.”

What he was referring to, and would specifically include in the Grace Farms Foundation legal appeal, filed Oct. 19, 2017, in Stamford Superior Court, was the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 [RLUIPA], a federal law which, among other things, gives churches and other religious institutions a way to avoid burdensome zoning law restrictions on their property use.

The appeal states: “The [P&Z] Resolution imposes limitations on religious activity on the site, that, upon information and belief, were not intended, and that are in violation of [RLUIPA]. Grace Farms Foundation asks the court to sustain the appeal, direct P&Z to revise the resolution in accordance with the law, award costs and grant such other relief as in law or equity may apply.”

In essence, Dinan says, “they [Grace Farms] were designated under the zoning regulations for religious-institution use, then went to the town to expand their use. And now that they’re appealing, they’re back to invoking RLUIPA in the lawsuit. And in fairness, under the zoning regulations, they still are considered a religious institution.”

Several Grace Farms neighbors also filed legal appeals, asking the court to reverse P&Z’s decision to approve the special permit.

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The River building at Grace Farms.

Starting over?

Even with still-pending lawsuits by neighbors, and waiting for a Superior Court judge’s ruling regarding the Grace Farms appeal, things generally seemed to be winding down.

They were not.

A bizarre development muddied the waters anew when, on Nov. 28, 2017, Grace Farms Foundation filed new applications with P&Z for a text amendment and special permit identical to what P&Z had already approved.

Why? Because New Canaan town attorney Ira Bloom requested the foundation, through O’Hanlan, to do so.

Why? To “address the alleged procedural defects” that form the basis of some of the neighbors’ legal appeals, Bloom explained in a Nov. 20 letter to O’Hanlan.

The long and short of it is that neighbor lawsuits, in addition to claiming economic damage, also asked that P&Z’s decision be overturned because they felt the post-hearing legal notices were “defective, incomplete and misleading” and failed to meet the requirements of state law or the town’s zoning regulations.

Bloom opined that instead of awaiting a judge’s ruling on the neighbor lawsuits, which could take a year or more and be adverse to the town, holding new, expedited hearings and making sure there are no procedural defects made sense.

“These new matters will be placed on an upcoming agenda for a public hearing, with all requisite filings and notices to ensure that no procedural defects can be claimed,” Bloom wrote. “Although these would indeed be new applications, my hope is that by incorporating the earlier records, the time required [by P&Z] to hear and to decide them will be significantly condensed.”

The new application process is expected to start in January.

Reilly was asked if Grace Farms Foundation was guaranteed to get the same positive P&Z vote after filing the new applications.

“Absolutely not,” he says. “There is no fait accompli here. It’s a new application.”

Why then would the foundation agree to refile and chance losing when it already had approvals?

“You’d have to ask O’Hanlan or Sharon Prince that,” Reilly says.

Connecticut Magazine reached out to both for this story. Prince was said to be traveling. Through a spokesperson she eventually provided a few paragraphs lauding Grace Farms but declined to answer any questions directly. O’Hanlan responded to requests for comment by email, writing, “Thank you for your email and call. However, my policy is not to speak to the press about a client or a pending matter.”

Dinan and Reilly, editors of New Canaan’s go-to website and newspaper of record, respectively, agree the Grace Farms saga has been and continues to be compelling.

“It was a complicated case for the town and it will be a complicated case for the court,” Dinan says. 


This article appeared in the January 2018 issue of Connecticut Magazine. 

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