A burst of applause followed an overwhelming voice vote — a roomful in favor, and just one vote opposed — as a packed town meeting passed a demolition delay ordinance for Ridgefield.

“We’ve already lost some historic houses,” Dan O’Brien of the Historic District Commission told the public hearing just before the town meeting Wednesday night, March 4.

“Surprisingly,” said Ridgefield Historical Society vice president Sharon Dunphy, “Ridgefield, which is known throughout Connecticut for its charming Main Street, has no demo delay ordinance.”

“You have an opportunity to vote in an ordinance which would help preserve Ridgefield’s historic heritage,” said O’Brien, who drafted the ordinance and ushered it through approvals by the Board of Selectmen and Planning and Zoning Commission, modifying it along the way to address concerns raised.

The ordinance specifies that the 90-day delay applies to a structure that was “built before 1950 or is otherwise historically, architecturally or culturally significant.” It wouldn’t stop property owners from tearing structures down if they’re determined to — the goal of the 90-day delay is to give preservationists a chance to organize, lobby a targeted building’s owner, perhaps raise money to move it, or otherwise work to save it.

Ridgefield’s new demolition delay ordinance took affect Thursday, March 5, First Selectman Rudy Marconi said.

The town meeting of about 40 people nearly filled town hall’s lower level meeting room, and followed a public hearing at which a handful of people spoke in support of the ordinance.

Local architect Sean O’Kane said he walked just over a mile most days from his house on Olmstead Lane to his office in town, passing Main Street’s many historic houses.

“Almost every day I do that I notice some detail I hadn’t noticed before,” he said.

“If a structure has been up over 50 years,” O’Kane said, a law that requires a pause before demolishing it of “90 days, three months, should hardly be seen as a hardship.”

Concerns raised

The lone vote against the ordinance was from Ed Tyrrell, who also moderated the town meeting.

One of his concerns was that under the law the Ridgefield Historical Society, an unelected body, would have too much authority to judge the historical value of properties and whether someone should be made to wait for 90 days before tearing it down.

“I don’t think the Ridgefield Historical Society should be able to hold up a private property owner,” he said.

Tyrrell was also troubled by the penalties outlined in the law, which allows fines of up to $500 and/or up to a year in prison.

“If you knock down a shed that’s 51 years old you can go to jail for a year?” said Tyrrell, sounding incredulous.

First Selectman Marconi said that those were the maximums of the potential penalties, and they reflected what’s allowed under state statutes. He also said the wording in the ordinance would allow the penalties to change with state statutes over time.

Local attorney Bob Jewell raised some concerns about the ordinance in a letter that Marconi read to the meeting.

“Every regulation is subject to abuse,” he said.

Jewell said that with the 90-day delay following an initial 30-day period during which an objection could be filed, it amounted to a 120-day delay.

O’Brien, however, said that the 90-day delay would start as soon as an objection was filed. So if an objection was filed five days into the initial 30-day period, the total delay would be 95 days. It would only be 120 days if the objection wasn’t filed until the last day ofo the initial 30-day wait.

When the question was finally called, the chorus of ‘yea’ votes included virtually everyone in the town’s hall’s lower lever conference room. Tyrrell was only audible ‘nay.’

Revisions

The selectmen had been discussing the demo delay ordinance since January, and when they approved a draft and sent it on to voters at the March 4 town meeting, they passed a version that O’Brien has ushered through multiple revisions as town officials and other interested parties raised a variety of concerns.

“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 meeting that the town didn’t have a demolition ordinance of any sort on its books, and the proposal would codify the rules for demolition permits based on current building department practices, while adding the provision for a 90-day delay.

The 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 applies to demolish a building, there is now a waiting period of up to 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 the building’s historic, architectural or cultural significance “from either the Ridgefield Historic District Commission or the Ridgefield Historical Society,” the ordinance says. 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.”

In adopting a demolition delay ordinance Ridgefield joins 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 passed by Ridgefield.

O’Brien told the town meeting that the vast majority of delay ordinances called for a 90-day wait.

Around the state

Historic preservation advocates across the region have seen what’s been lost in the pursuit of the new and the rush to improve: aged buildings razed to make way for progress, taking with it connections to the past that animate a community’s character.

While the ordinance approved on Wednesday delays the demolition of aged buildings for 90 days is concerned with preserving Ridgefield’s identity, the same conversations are taking place across the Danbury area and the state about giving history a break in an age of economic development.

“It buys you some time to sit down with the property owner and talk to them about options such as tax incentives for rehabilitating a historic structure, or whether other owners might be interested in acquiring the property (to preserve it,)” said Christopher Wigren, deputy director of the statewide nonprofit Preservation Connecticut, formerly known as the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation. “Without this pause in the process, the owners are free to demolish the building.”

The hope is to save great old structures from the wrecking claw — such as the 1875 Italianate-style Union Savings Bank branch in New Milford’s downtown, which was slated for demolition before historians intervened and persuaded the architect to reuse it.

“That was a victory,” said Robert Burkhart, president of the New Milford Trust for Historic Preservation. “The building was done so well that the architect won an award.”

The goal is to avoid the heartache of losing landmarks such as Ridgefield’s “pink house” a 1720 Colonial saltbox that was bulldozed in 2009. One decade later, it remains a cautionary tale in Ridgefield, where First Selectman Rudy Marconi still shakes his head in dismay when it’s mentioned.

Ridgefield is the latest town to consider a limited and non-extendable demolition delay period for aged buildings that are considered “significant,” but not named on a national, state or local registry of historic places.

More than half of Danbury-area towns have such an ordinance already, including Kent, New Milford, Roxbury, Southbury, Bethel, Redding and Brookfield.

And in places that don’t have such an ordinance, including Danbury and Newtown, practices are in place where local historians are promptly notified when the building department receives a request to knock down an older building.

“Any time an old building comes up for a demolition the town historian will come in and try to speak with the landowners,” said George Benson, Newtown’s planning director. “An ordinance would be a good thing to have, but if you can’t convince the property owners to do something, they can demolish the building once the delay runs out, because you can’t just take property from somebody.”

The demolition delay ordinances in greater Danbury and across Connecticut are not meant to cover buildings in historic districts, which under state law have their own protocol for giving the benefit of a delay to old buildings before they’re demolished.

Nor can the ordinances be used as a pretext to stop a property owner’s development plans.

The pause button

Ridgefield voters backed a demolition delay ordinance supported by preservation advocates and elected leaders.

The Ridgefield ordinance and those in place in other towns are in addition to protections for hundreds of properties in greater Danbury that are listed on national, state and local registries of historic places, such as Danbury’s Octagon House and New Milford’s 137-acre Hine-Buckingham Farms.

Such registries don’t cover all the structures that have historical value.

In Danbury, which does not have a demolition delay ordinance, the practice for years has been to operate as though there is one.

In July, for example, the city’s leading historian suggested that Danbury buy a 330-year-old home once owned by Rear Adm. Francis Dickens — a decorated Navy officer whose second cousin was the great English novelist Charles Dickens. The home, which is on the market, is believed to be Danbury’s oldest.

“One of the practices we have in place in Danbury is if there is a demolition planned for any building older than 75 years, they are asked to let the historical society know so at least we can go out and take pictures,” said Brigid Guertin, the city historian and executive director of the Danbury Museum. “We have had multiple people reach out to us who are going through the demolition process, and we have been able to go out and photograph and build out our archives.”

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