After 'tremendous amount of work,' Stamford Zoning Board OKs new rules on historic preservation

Photo of Verónica Del Valle
The former South End firehouse is photographed on March 10, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut. An ordinance would set up a Historic Preservation Trust Fund governed by five trustees who would oversee the collection of fees, grants, donations and other monies that will be used to inventory what?s left of the city's landmarks, provide loans to people who seek to rehabilitate them, acquire notable properties, and educate people about their significance.

The former South End firehouse is photographed on March 10, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut. An ordinance would set up a Historic Preservation Trust Fund governed by five trustees who would oversee the collection of fees, grants, donations and other monies that will be used to inventory what?s left of the city's landmarks, provide loans to people who seek to rehabilitate them, acquire notable properties, and educate people about their significance.

Matthew Brown / Hearst Connecticut Media

STAMFORD — After months of mulling changes and community discussion, the Zoning Board approved on Monday a complete overhaul of the city’s rules on historic preservation.

The new guidelines, which were unanimously approved, give preservation efforts in the city more teeth while also reshaping the zoning bonuses available to those who preserve historic properties.

“It’s been a tremendous amount of work from the staff,” said board member Rosanne McManus. Over two and half months, the Land Use Bureau and board deliberated the latest “omnibus text change” to section 7.3 of the city’s zoning code, drawing marked interest from both the city’s historic preservationists and property owners, particularly those downtown.

Proposed historic preservation rules create a review process for any changes made to historic sites, including oversight from the Historic Preservation Advisory Committee — which makes recommendations to the Zoning Board — with final approval up to the Zoning Board. This text change further formalizes HPAC’s role in the review process.

Most notably, the text creates a “cultural resources inventory and “historic preservation white list” for Stamford: two lists that define what is historically valuable and what isn’t respectively.

Historic sites, according to the new rules, are anything on or under consideration for the National Register of Historic Places or cultural resources inventory , or within a local historic district.

The proposed inventory spurred immediate concern from Stamford’s business community. Developers and entrepreneurs alike fretted over the potential of signing onto stricter zoning rules, especially since any building at least 50 years old technically qualifies for the Cultural Resources Inventory.

In the newly approved rules, property owners can shut down their nomination to the inventory if an outside organization seeks to add them without their consent, a move that eased concern from organizations like the Downtown Special Services District.

“The only point in time that you’re on the cultural resources inventory is if you apply,” said Land Use Bureau Chief Ralph Blessing in a final attempt to ease anxieties about the list. “You cannot be added to the cultural resources inventory without being asked.”

While the omnibus puts up new red tape on developing and demolishing historic structures, it also comes with added development bonuses for historic structure. The current rules already established added incentives, like increased density or lower parking requirements, for developers who preserved or repurposed historic sites.

To Blessing, these bonuses go hand inhand with the newly codified role of HPAC. While the advisory committee can painstakingly opine on whether a building is historic, it also implicitly has a stake in what buildings can get development bonuses.

“What we want is to make sure is that the structures who get the bonus or deserving of the bonus. You can’t just come in with an old house,” Blessing said. “It has to be historic.”

While HPAC has a strong role in the advisory process, the zoning board has final jurisdiction on historic buildings in Stamford.

These new bonuses riff off the standards established in the old version of the city’s zoning code while still giving developers interested in Stamford the chance to grow buildings in traditionally historic neighborhoods, something that urban planners have been seeing more and more.

“The … section has gained popularity over the last several years, now we are currently seeing four to five applications a year under 7.3,” David Woods said to the board. Woods serves as deputy director of planning for Stamford and as chair of the Historic Preservation Advisory Committee. “We see it as a particularly valuable tool in our toolbox to promote historic preservation in the community.”