Demolishing a historic Ridgefield building without permit could come with stricter penalties

RIDGEFIELD — Stricter requirements and penalties may be imposed on anyone who decides to demolish a historic building in town, as a result of several proposed changes to the town's Demolition Delay Ordinance. 

The original ordinance, which was passed in 2020, imposes a period of no more than 90 days before granting a demolition permit for a structure of historic, architectural or cultural importance. The request for the revision relates to a controversial razing of a structure on New Street last fall, which occurred without the proper permits.

The proposed changes to the ordinance, which can be viewed on the town's website, "revisits the violations and penalties so that a willful demolition of historic property without a permit will hopefully be unlikely," said Dan O'Brien, chairman of the town's Historic District Commission, at last week's Board of Selectmen public hearing.

One change pertains to an updated definition of a historic home, which has been revised from one that was built before 1950 to one built 50 years ago or older.

"The 50 years is more common in the other towns and basically it provides ... as time goes on, what may not be historic today might be considered historic 30 to 40 years from now," he said.

Violators would also face stricter penalties. Currently, there is a $500 penalty for violations. In the revised ordinance, a violator will be responsible for all the costs of enforcement, attorney fees and court fees, in addition to the $500.

Additionally, violators will be denied any land use permits with respect to all their properties, for one year. 

"For any builder, particularly to look down the nose of a possible violation where you can't get any land permits for one year is a pretty substantial, scary penalty for them, economically," O'Brien said. "I think it would stop almost anybody in their tracks."

Another change involves a new posting requirement — Within seven days following the filing of a demolition permit application, a sign must be posted in a conspicuous part of the property, making the intent to demolish clear. The sign must be visible from the nearest public or private street.

Additionally, an applicant must publish a notice of intent to demolish in a newspaper and an internet published newsletter that has "substantial circulation in the town," the revised ordinance states.

"The change to a fixed date of the newspaper will substantially accelerate the process for the permit holder," O'Brien said.

Previously, applicants needed to go through a "lengthy" permit process and then wait 90 days. 

"Now, as soon as someone wants to demolish a property, they put a notice in the paper and that starts the clock ticking, so it's a much more traditional and firm date," he added. "This will eliminate a lot of confusion and uncertainty and delay that we've experienced in the past."

The revised ordinance will be a town meeting topic at the Dec. 7 Board of Selectmen meeting, where residents will vote.

Most of the towns in Fairfield County have a similar ordinance, O'Brien said.

"The sole objective of this type of revision is just to allow some time for some research, along with the Ridgefield Historical Society, the background of the property, and then to meet with the owners to discuss if there are any alternatives to demolition in terms of reuse the property," he said. "Failing that, if the owner wants to continue with the demolition, they're perfectly entitled to do that. The benefit of this is it gives us at least time to pause and speak to the owner about what we're trying  to do."