TO THE EDITOR:
A broad and far-reaching NIMBY attack has been launched against the Lachat Town Farm, which has become the heart and soul of Weston’s community activity.
If it succeeds, much of what we know and love about Lachat will cease to exist.
On May 4, at the regularly scheduled monthly meeting of the Lachat Town Farm Commission (LTFC), a Fairfield-based zoning and land use attorney spoke on behalf, he said, of Lachat neighbors Drs. Jenn and David Gruen, Julia Sears, and David Ambrose to oppose the construction of a new educational center at the Farm as well as the frequency and duration of events hosted there.
The attorney, Leonard Braman, asserted that the proposed building was too large, the events too frequent, and the duration of those events too long. He did not bother to include qualifiers such as, “in my opinion,” or “from our perspective.”
Three days later Mr. Braman served several town officials with Freedom of Information Act demands for essentially all of their communications regarding Lachat from May 1, 2020 to the present. The demands include communications from all eleven volunteers on the LTFC.
Then, yesterday, Mr. Braman sent an eight-page letter asking the Connecticut Attorney General to intervene and supersede Weston’s local management of Lachat. Details of claims made in the filing can be found at the conclusion of this letter.
About the Project
I serve on the board of Friends of Lachat, Inc., (FOL) the non-profit organization that has funded activities, repairs, and improvements at the Farm over the past decade. Weston residents should know that Lachat is not a line item in the Town budget and has never received town funding from Weston taxpayers.
Over the years since FOL saved the historic David Godfrey Farmhouse on the Lachat property from demolition and meticulously restored it, donors have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and in-kind donations, and volunteers have contributed thousands of hours of work.
Last year, the donor who had offered $5 million to build a new Weston town Library (but ultimately withdrew the offer after complications arose) contributed $50,000 to FOL to explore the possibility of building a new educational center at the Farm. He then pledged a total of $2 million for the project after it completes the town review and permitting process.
To explore the feasibility of the building, FOL contracted with Rob Sanders, a local architect with expertise in historical renovation and construction, to design conceptual plans.
After Rob and the FOL toured several locations in the area such as Wakeman Farm in Westport and The Stamford Museum and Nature Center, reviewed hundreds of pictures online of barn-like structures, and held weekly meetings to review plans, Rob provided FOL with architectural plans, and the team began seeking community input about art studio space, a demonstration kitchen, acoustics, energy efficiency options, and other features that would make the building useful and low maintenance.
In addition, since the Library project ultimately was scuttled due to potential septic system issues, Rob developed site plans that the Westport Weston Health District could review.
The building would enable the Farm to host indoor events, conduct cooking and canning lessons, have art studio space, storage, indoor restrooms, and a lecture hall to further its mission of environmental and agricultural education and “spiritual enrichment.” The project would include demolition of the existing 1950s dilapidated three car garage, and it would incorporate a number of energy efficiency and sustainability features.
FOL contracted with a professional cost estimator in early January to determine projected building costs for the proposed center. The cost estimators concluded that with the past year’s escalation in building materials and labor, the project would cost approximately $3.5 million, including a substantial contingency budget.
FOL promptly notified the donor, who said he wanted to see townspeople close the funding gap with pledges of their own. He gave FOL two months to obtain sufficient pledges to prove Weston residents would have, as he put it, skin in the game.
FOL then prepared a PowerPoint summary of the proposed project and sent it to a list of potential large donors. In non-profit fundraising, this preliminary fundraising period is known as a “quiet phase,” and 50% to 80% of a fundraising campaign target is usually raised during that interval.
In a short period, FOL was able to obtain pledges of $850,000, which delighted the donor, who then pledged up to another $1,000,000 in matching funds, depending on the final amount FOL was able to obtain from its supporters. To the extent that the fundraising between FOL and the donor exceeded the construction costs, the balance was to be donated to a maintenance fund for the new building.
Here, the story takes a somewhat tragic turn.
For years, people in Weston have asked the LTFC for permission to host a private event at the Farm. In September of 2019, Alexandra Richards, the daughter of famed Rolling Stones guitarist Keith and Patti Richards (who are Lachat neighbors), was married at the Farm in a private ceremony.
As a result of that event and the absence of a coherent plan for handling private event requests, the LTFC began to develop a policy for private events. Some of the questions LTFC members considered were how many events could be held per year, how many could be indoor and how many could be outdoors, how many could be over 100 people and how many could be under 100, how many could be daytime and how many could be nighttime, how many could have amplified music, and how would these events conform to restrictions in the deed that governs the Farm.
After several meetings at the LTFC and discussions with the Board of Selectmen (BOS) last Fall and early winter, the BOS conducted a public hearing in February to consider the approval of a private events policy. Unfortunately, notice of the meeting was sent, at the suggestion of BOS member Stephan Grozinger, to neighbors only within a 250-foot radius of the Farm.
Previously, the BOS had offered to notify neighbors within a 500 foot radius when Lachat matters were being considered. Several neighbors took the BOS oversight to be intentional, though the BOS maintained that the notice issue was a clerical mistake.
Dr. Jenn Gruen, one of the neighbors who did not directly receive a notice from the BOS because she was outside of the 250-foot radius, voiced objections at the BOS meeting, as did a couple of other neighbors on her street, and the BOS tabled the discussion until the LTFC and the neighbors could discuss the matter and reach a compromise.
Meeting With the Neighbors
Stirling Collins, who is both a neighbor and a commissioner on the LTFC, offered to meet with the neighbors to hear their concerns, obtain a list of recommendations, and report back to the LTFC. A soft-spoken man with an accommodating demeanor, Stirling seemed like the ideal choice to try to find common ground.
Stirling, it should be noted, has been serving as an advisor to FOL regarding the proposed educational center because it was he who first interested the donor in a possible bequest to the Farm. Stirling suggested he should raise the issue of the proposed educational center to the neighbors when meeting with them to discuss the private events policy.
Stirling then met with Jenn and David Gruen and Debra Pinals, another Old Field Lane resident who has objected in the past to public activity at the Farm, to determine what might address their concerns about the private events. As the meeting progressed, Stirling compiled an eight-item wish list from the neighbors, ranging from restricting the number of events, keeping them small, potentially limiting them to daytime, and possibly insisting that the private events be restricted to Weston residents.
As the meeting was nearing an end, Stirling told the neighbors that FOL had received a pledge of $2 million for a new educational center at the Farm and was in the process of obtaining pledges from donors to close the gap between estimated costs for the center and the primary donor’s pledge. He told them that FOL had been focused on preventing missteps that could cause the donor to withdraw his offer, so a lot of preliminary work was going into site and septic planning, cost analysis, conservation, and zoning.
Relieved after his meeting, Stirling wrote the following to FOL members on March 8 this year: “So I think the meeting went surprisingly well, they Love the farm! They are concerned about our growth and scope increase and how it impacts the neighborhood.”
Unfortunately, Stirling’s impression was incorrect.
The neighbors who attended the meeting quickly sent a message to all of the other neighbors, raising alarm about the size, frequency, duration etc. of private events and said the new educational center would expand the frequency of these events as a new venue. It would, they said, become a private events center, overrun with activity and visitors.
And therein lies the tragedy.
The issue about the educational center and the issue about private events became entwined, though one really wasn’t tied to the other.
As it turns out, though demand in Weston is strong for a private events venue, though the impact on neighbors could be minimized because the educational center will be sited far from any neighbors, though indoor events are inherently less obtrusive, and though FOL could use the venue rental income to support its mission, FOL and the LTFC agreed that they could compromise on the question of whether the Farm could host private events and took that matter off the table.
Several meetings ensued, including ones with just LTFC members and neighbors, ones with former and present town officials, and even one with the father of Jenn Gruen, who, as a retired partner of a large New York law firm, entered the fray with a detailed “brief” accompanied by dozens of pages of exhibits. Rumblings from the neighbors suggested they were planning to petition the state Attorney General’s office to declare activities at the Farm and the new educational center forbidden under the terms of the Lachat deed restrictions.
While the Lachat representatives were willing to forego private events, they could never get the neighbors to compromise on anything significant in return. The controversy then spilled over to the existing event schedule at the Farm, including such town favorites as the four Farmers Markets in the summer, the Music in the Meadow series, and the annual Hoe-Down fundraiser.
One of the neighbors insisted that all events end by 8 p.m. and complained bitterly that because she has demanded that endpoint in the past and the commission didn’t agree to terminate summer events that early, the commission “doesn’t listen.”
The same neighbor complained about people parking on Old Field Road, which is a reasonable objection because Old Field is a private road, and increased traffic could be dangerous to children and pedestrians. LTFC then placed no parking signs along Godfrey Road and Old Field and told volunteers to direct traffic away from that road.
The neighbor then complained that the signs were left up too long, so LTFC agreed to take them down the morning after an event by no later than 9:00 a.m. Last week, the neighbor said she didn’t want any signs on Old Field at all which, as it turns out, will be fine because LTFC has proposed having a volunteer posted in front of Old Field, dedicated to steering drivers away from the street for the entire duration of an event.
Volunteers also clean the Farm’s frontage along Godfrey and Ladder Hill Roads in the morning after every major event and pick up all trash, irrespective of whether it originated at the Farm or blew out of a neighbor’s trash cans. Volunteers frequently monitor the frontage for trash, and volunteers have done extensive work along Godfrey road and the farm’s perimeter restoring walls and removing invasive plant species.
Positions vs. Objectives
The Harvard Negotiation Project has identified a common flaw in negotiations, when parties get stuck on their positions instead of their objectives.
The Farm’s objectives are to serve the community at large, to educate the public about farm to fork issues, and to continue to be self-sustaining.
The neighbors’ objectives, it seems, should be to be able to enjoy their property without too much intrusion from the Farm and identify issues that they believe are an unfair imposition. Instead, their position is that the Farm should not have public or private events, that it should not build the new educational center, and that the property should simply be well maintained.
Mr. Braman staked out these positions unequivocally, changing this process from what should be reasonable and civil discussions among residents to a process that is fundamentally adversarial and confrontational. If the parties represented by Mr. Braman wanted to find common ground, why would it be necessary to force 11 ordinary citizens who volunteer their time on the LTFC to now spend time scouring emails and text messages for communications related to Lachat?
Efforts to Address Concerns
LTFC has consistently shown a willingness to address neighbors’ concerns. Regarding private events, for instance, LTFC agreed to take that issue off the table. Regarding public events, LTFC has made recommendations regarding the number of events, the time when they would end, how many would be conducted indoor, and how many would be conducted outdoor.
FOL has commissioned an acoustic study to determine how far and at what volume sound travels, at different decibel levels, to prepare a policy about amplified music.
To address potential traffic issues related to the building, FOL has hired a consulting firm to analyze traffic patterns and make recommendations to improve traffic flow and management.
FOL also has had discussions with the Weston police department to discuss traffic control and improving signage, and the Farm has decided to dedicate seven paid or volunteer attendants to manage traffic.
As for the educational center, to say that it shouldn’t be built because it could be used for private events is like saying a homebuilder shouldn’t build a house because it could be used as a brothel.
If one wants to prohibit proscribed activity at a building, establish policies that prevent the activity — don’t block the building’s construction.
This building is intended to be a center for education: “spiritual refreshment” (as specified in the deed), gardening lessons, cooking demonstrations, lectures on sustainability, beekeeping, raising chickens, art displays, and other community-oriented activities that, conducted indoors, should have virtually no impact on neighbors.
The Door is Still Open
LTFC and FOL certainly didn’t enter this year looking for a fight with neighbors. Instead, both Farm groups were committed to improving Lachat’s activities and offerings, building a wonderful new center for town enrichment, and continuing to improve awareness of and accommodation for neighbors.
The door is still wide open for a reasonable compromise and a warm spirit of cooperation, but if the neighbors extend a fist when LTFC and FOL extend a hand, supporters of the Farm will not abandon what they believe to be a great opportunity to improve the lives of all citizens of Weston.
— David Allon
The letter filed by Attorney Braman with the Office of the Attorney General includes the following claims:
“any ‘event’ not specifically related to the conservation purpose and Leon Lachat’s mission, i.e., preserving the natural landscape, is strictly prohibited. Moreover, any ‘event’ hosted for a proper purpose must only be ‘similar in type, scope and intensity to the activities presently conducted’ at Devil’s Den adjacent to the Farm.
current events such as the Farmers Markets, Music in the Meadow, and Annual Hoe-Down invariably lead to an “exponential increase in foot traffic on the land for prohibited ’picnicking’ and ‘public recreation’ purposes,” resulting in “the introduction of massive, prohibited vehicular traffic upon the Property and throughout the surrounding neighborhood” and should therefore be banned.
“Leon Lachat’s mission was not to foster a home for the arts and cultural exploration. His mission, and the purpose of the Conservation Restrictions, was to promote educational activities centered on the ecological systems naturally occurring and preserved on the Farm. That mission and purpose is unrecognizable in the ‘Agri-Cultural’ center proposed by the Town. To the contrary, the proposed building, the large-scale performing arts events that it is designed to accommodate, and the massive vehicular traffic that such events will generate, all contravene the Conservation Restrictions.” Mr. Braman then calls upon the Attorney General to “prohibit the proposed building, due to its size, design, and purpose.”
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