‘Demo delay’ will go to town meeting

A “demo delay” ordinance creating a 90-day window for people to organize to try to save historic buildings is headed to voters for approval.

The Board of Selectmen voted 4 to 0 to send a proposed demolition delay ordinance to a March 4 town meeting, preceded immediately by a public hearing.

“Ridgefield now more than ever has historic structures at risk,” Dan O’Brien of the Historic District Commission told the selectmen. “We have already lost historic structures which possibly could have been saved by use of a demo delay.”

Sharon Dunphy of the Ridgefield Historical Society also spoke at the Feb. 5 selectmen’s meeting, supporting the law put forward by O’Brien.

“The town of Ridgefield is known for its historic charm, which promotes economic activity and tourism,” she said.

Ridgefield has many historic and architecturally or culturally valuable buildings, some of them built as much as 300 years ago.

“If a building has stood for 300 years, surely we can wait 90 days,” Dunphy said.

The selectmen approved a version of the ordinance that O’Brien has ushered through multiple revisions as town officials and other interested parties raised concerns and offered suggestions.

“The 90-day delay period,” the proposal says, “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.”

O’Brien told the selectmen the town’s does not currently have any demolition ordinance on the books, and his proposal codifies rules for demolitions based on current building department practices, and then adds the 90 day delay.

“We have a simple ordinance — clean — it reflects what we do now,” O’Brien said.

The 90-day delay, of course, would be a new step.

The proposed law targets “any application to demolish any building, structure or part thereof that was built before 1950 or is otherwise historically, architecturally or culturally significant.”

When someone applied to demolish a building, there would be a waiting period of 30 days during which a written objection to the demolition could be filed with the building department by registered or certified mail.

The objection would need “written support” for its historic, architectural or cultural significance “from either the Ridgefield Historic District Commission or the Ridgefield Historical Society.” This clause was added to the proposed ordinance to address concerns raised by the Planning and Zoning Commission. Earlier drafts would have allowed objections to be filed to delay the demolition of any structure, without requiring any support for its significance.

The filing of a supported objection would trigger the new ordinance, in which case the building department “shall delay the issuance of the permit for a period of 90 days from the receipt of the initial written objection.”

The ordinance as proposed by O’Brien has potential penalties up to a $500 fine or a year in prison.

“Is that enough? That seemed kind of small to me,” Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark said of the fine. “I thought $500 was a little low.”

First Selectman Rudy Marconi said other ordinances that the town had passed referenced penalty amounts specified in state statutes, so they would increase over time as the state raised the limit on fines.

Selectwoman Barbara Manners suggested the ordinance might be amended to reflect penalty language allowing fines “not more than the maximum allowed by state statute.”

There are demolition delay ordinances in towns around the state, including more than half of Fairfield County’s 22 towns. Towns such as Westport and Redding have delays that last 180 days — six months, as opposed to the 90-day or three-month delay proposed in Ridgefield.