Demo delay law: 90 days to save historic building?

When this house was torn down on Catoonah Street in 2016, there was no demolition delay ordinance, but it was a case where public sentiment seemed to favor demolition rather than saving.

When this house was torn down on Catoonah Street in 2016, there was no demolition delay ordinance, but it was a case where public sentiment seemed to favor demolition rather than saving.

Macklin Reid / Hearst Connecticut Media

A demolition delay ordinance — designed to give conservationists 90 days to save a historic building — is being proposed by a group of preservation advocates and town officials. It will come before a town meeting on Wednesday, March 4.

“Ridgefield has historic structures at risk and has lost historic structures which possibly could have been saved by use of a demo delay,” said Dan O’Brien of the Historic District Commission in a memorandum. “(The) povision provides time for interested parties to offer alternatives to demolition such as rehabilitation and reuse of building.”

“At least you have an opportunity,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said.

The proposed ordinance specifies that the 90-day delay applies to a structure “built before 1950 or is otherwise historically, architecturally or culturally significant” — and is intended to give preservationists a chance to lobby the owner, organize, raise money or otherwise work to save it.

Marconi described the need for the delay ordinance to the Board of Selectmen on Jan. 22 by recalling that a 1760s house at Gilbert and New Streets was torn down for an apartment building.

He also mentioned the “pink house” in Ridgebury, one of oldest houses in town when it was torn down. That was despite arrangements Marconi and an alliance of concerned citizens had completed to move it to a short way down Ridgebury Road to a site on the Ridgebury Congregational Church’s property.

The 90-day delay — which couldn’t be extended — would be triggered by the filing of an objection to the demolition of a significant structure, backed by “written support” for its architectural and historic or cultural value from “either The Ridgefield Historic District Commission or The Ridgefield Historical Society,” the proposed ordinance says.

Under the ordinance when someone applies for a demolition permit there is a 30-day period before the building department can issue the permit for demolition. During that 30 days, the objections to the proposed demolition may be filed, bringing the 90-day delay into play.

The proposed ordinance has a penalty clause, saying violators “shall be fined not more than $500 or imprisoned not more than one year.”

Adoption of the proposed ordinance will require the approval of the Board of Selectmen and then voters at a town meeting. It was expected to come before the selectmen for a vote on Wednesday. It would be up to the selectmen to schedule a public hearing and town meeting.

Commission concerns

The demo delay ordinance has the support of the Planning and Zoning Commission and it staff.

“The town’s Plan of Conservation and Development supports the protection of historical resources, an has suggested a demo delay as a proactive tool,” assistant planner Karen Martin wrote in a Jan. 31 letter to the selectmen.

Martin had presented a draft of the demo delay ordinance to Planning and Zoning Commission members on Jan. 28, and they raised some concerns. But by Feb. 3 O’Brien was circulating a revised ordinance that accommodated the main issues raised by the commission.

The earlier draft of the ordinance that the commission reviewed didn’t have language limiting the delay to structures of historic or architectural significance.

“What’s historic?” asked commission member George Hanlon.

Hanlon, who said he’d demolished three houses over his years in the land development business, recalled the recent opposition to a property owner’s plans to demolish an early 1900s house at 5 North Salem Road, with talk of the house as a good example of the “vernacular architecture” of the late Victorian period.

“Raised ranches,” he said, are the vernacular architecture of the 1960s.

“What’s worth preserving, and what’s not?” said Joe Fossi, another commissioner who is the construction business.

The ordinance as it was then written wasn’t limited to buildings with historic value.

“This is intended to cover everything,” Martin said.

“Who makes the decision?” Hanlon asked.

“This isn’t a prohibition,” said commissioner John Katz. “It’s a waiting period.”

“Ninety days is a long time,” said Hanlon.

Some commissioners worried that people could file for demolition delays not out of a sincere desire to preserve a building, but simply to slow down a project they don’t like — or a project by a builder they didn’t like.

“It could be abused,” said Fossi

The commission’s concerns prompted O’Brien’s latest revision, with language specifying that the delay would be granted if an objection was filed to demolition of a building that was “built before 1950 or is otherwise historically, architecturally or culturally significant” — and requiring “written support” for the building’s significance from either The Ridgefield Historic District Commission or The Ridgefield Historical Society.

O’Brien’s memorandum defended the ordinance against fears it would be burdensome.

“A 90-day stay period cannot be extended —(it’s) not a hardship for property owner,” O’Brien said.

“A customary demolition ordinance, let alone a demo delay provision, is missing from the town code. The proposed ordinance codifies existing building department demolition procedures which work well and adds a common 90-day delay feature.”

A demolition delay ordinance was proposed years ago, but didn’t make it through the process. A meeting to discuss it drew a number of people from the real estate and construction industries, who raised concerns, and virtually no one advocated in favor of it.

Filing requirements

The proposed demo delay ordinance outlines procedures for demolition permits, and the circumstances allowing demolition to be delayed.

As presented to the Planning and Zoning Commission on Jan. 28, it says, in part:

“No person firm, corporation of other entity shall demolish any building, structure of part thereof without first obtaining a permit from the building department.”

An applicant seeking a demolition permit must send a “notice of intent to demolish” by registered or certified mail to “all adjoining owners of property; the Ridgefield Historic District Commission; the Ridgefiled Historical Society and the Town Clerk.”

The demolition permit application is required to include “the common name, if any, and actual street address of the building or structure to be demolished.”

If the property is within a Ridgefield Historic District, the application for a demotion permit must include a “certificate of appropriateness” from the Historic District Commission concerning the planned demolition.

Objections that would trigger a 90-day delay would need to be filed with the town building department via registered or certified mail within 30 days following the date that the demolition permit application is accepted by the building department.

The proposed ordinance says, “The 90-day delay period is intended to provide an objecting party a reasonable period of time to further investigate the historical background and preservation benefit of the structure and to communicate with the owner possible alternatives to the demolition of the structure.”