Voices for historic preservation — the Historic District Commission, the Ridgefield Historical Society — spoke out for preserving a 120-year-old Queen Ann Victorian at 5 North Salem Road, the gateway to the Titicus Hill Historic District. The house is proposed for demolition to make way for a nine-unit affordable housing project.

“Protecting our historic resources, in this case the ‘sense of place’ within the Titicus Hill Historic District, should be of paramount interest to us all,” Historic District Commission Chairman Daniel O’Brien wrote to the Planning and Zoning Commission.

“The Ridgefield Historical Society strives to preserve the historic charm of Ridgefield,” society president Sharon Dunphy said. “While recognizing the needs of today, we must respect the architecturally significant dwellings of yesterday.”

P&Z commissioners noted, however, that the plan to knock down two old houses and put up an apartment building had been submitted under the state affordable housing statute 8-30g, which allows developers to ignore most zoning regulations.

“You do recognize under 8-30g we’re very limited on what we can extract from the applicant,” Commissioner John Katz told the historic preservation advocates.

“We will do our best,” Commissioner Charles Robbins added, “however, the applicant could build a six-story glass box and we couldn’t stop it.”

The discussion took place before the Planning and Zoning Commission on Tuesday, Sept. 24 — at a public hearing that will be continued on Tuesday, Oct. 29.

Affordable law

The 8-30g law allows developers to ignore zoning regulations if 30 percent of the dwelling units are rented for the next 40 years under state affordable housing guidelines.

The plans by property owner Kun H. Wei call for the Victorian and another house behind it — with a total of three units in the two structures, not four as had been previously stated — to be demolished. A new nine-unit building, with three of the units designated to be “affordable” under state rules, would be constructed.

Still, saving the 120-year old Victorian — or at least it’s facade, as was done during redevelopment of the Elms Inn site — was a possibility that the applicant’s attorney, Robert Jewell, agreed to explore before the project’s next public hearing session.

The development team will “look for ways to preserve the front of the existing building,” Jewell said.

This offer to look at preserving the Victorian’s facade could address the streetscape appearance, which seemed opponents’ leading concern.

John Kinnear, chairman of the Architectural Advisory Committee which advises the commission on applications, wrote suggesting how the building or its facade could be saved.

“It has come to my attention that structures at 5 North Salem Road are located in the Titicus Historic District, and the larger house at 5 North Salem Road is the most important structure in the District,” Kinnear wrote.

“We recommend that the applicant consider converting the structure into two or three units rather than demolishing this prominent landmark…

“Losses of important structures like this chip away at the character of Ridgefield that we all strive to protect,” Kinnear said. “With imaginative design this house can be saved and achieve the goals of the applicant — Bennett House, Paris Hair Stylists which was repurposed rather than demolished, the house at 605 Main Street with additional units behind it, and the three main structures of the Elms property that were successfully converted to apartments with new construction behind are good examples of successful preservation by conservation.”

The Ridgefield Historical Society seemed to agree.

“The Elms project was very well executed,” said Dunphy, the historical society president. “We’re asking you to try to preserve the charm and character.”

Parking

In addition to exploring the possibility of saving the front Victorian house — or at least its facade, Attorney Jewell agreed to look into several other issues raised at the hearing.

One was to reduce the number of large trees to be cut, perhaps by building fewer parking spaces than the 19 in the current plan.

Jewell also agreed to look into whether the parking area — currently planned for the front of the property — could be relocated to behind the building, or perhaps split between front and back.

Several speakers had questioned having the 19-car parking lot in front of the new building. Jewell replied that the site plan as proposed allowed the house to be roughly the same distance back from the street as neighboring houses.

Putting the house to the front of the site, and parking behind, would have neighbors looking out their side windows at a parking lot, and put them closer to noise from commuters starting their cars early in the morning and snowplowing in winter, he said. But Jewell agreed the development team would look into it.

‘Loom factor’

During this discussion, commission Chairwoman Rebbecca Mucchetti raised another potential concern about putting the new building at the front of the site, with the parking behind — as most of her colleagues seemed to favor.

A previous affordable project on Main Street had prompted a lot of back-and-forth about parking in front, parking behind, Mucchetti said. In the end the parking was put behind, and the house in front — a decision that she said had created “a loom factor” for passersby.

A total of five people spoke at the hearing — including the two who read letters from historical groups. Kinnear’s letter, also read into the record, made six opinions offered — all opposed.

Tracey Miller of Ramapoo Road said “there’s a new line of thinking” in the architectural world, that values “renovating old housing” as opposed to “demolishing and rebuilding.”

Craig Ungaro of New Street said his property has been negatively affected by stormwater runoff from an affordable housing project approved just north of the Wei property. He and other New Street neighbors had opposed that project and raised concern about drainage, and now another affordable project was being proposed.

“We see all these buildings — it’s horrifying,” he said.

“...We are seeing water issues. We are seeing impacts of all this development,” Ungaro said.

Titicus Hill

Historical preservation advocates’ concerns were expressed in letters highlighting the property’s location at the south end of the Titicus Hill Historic District.

The Titicus Hill district is largely honorary in the sense that it does not have the legal protections that apply in south Main Street’s historic district, where property owners must obtain a certificate of appropriateness from the Historic District Commission before doing exterior alterations. This distinction was noted by P&Z Chairwoman Mucchetti.

But speakers from historic groups argued the house’s association with the Titicus Hill district is nonetheless significant.

“The Titicus Hill Historic District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the State Register of Historic Places,” said Dunphy, historical society president.

“The application process for these designations is rigorous,” the historical society’s letter said. “In March 2012 a Registration Form was submitted to the federal government, and the Titicus Hill Historic District was accepted as a place of special historic significance.

“Quotes from the application follow. ‘The buildings have a high degree of architectural integrity ... ‘Substantially intact, the area is representative of patterns of American residential development in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.’

“The Statement of Significance specifies that the ‘Property is associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history’ and the ‘Property embodies the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction or represents the work of a master, or possesses high artistic values, or represents a significant and distinguishable entity...’ The house at 5 North Salem Road is specifically highlighted...

“Taking into account that 5 North Salem Road is in a recognized historic district, we ask that any building changes preserve the character of this state and nationally recognized historic district. Certainly, a nineteen car parking lot in front of the building is not in keeping with the original street view. Therefore, we hope that any construction would preserve the face of the current building and be in keeping with the character of the historic district.”

Eyesore, bad precedent

Sean O’Kane and Briggs Tobin, representing the Historic District Commission, also addressed the property in light of its importance to the Titicus Hill Historic District.

O’Kane, reading a letter from O’Brien, expressed “concern with respect to the demolition at 5 North Salem Road of the existing historic colonial house and the proposed development of the property for construction of a three-story multi-dwelling unit (9 units) with a large parking lot (19 spaces) fronting on North Salem Road.

“... The District is referenced in Ridgefield’s Plan of Conservation and Development as a historic resource of the Town,” O’Brien wrote. “While a certain amount of redevelopment of existing property is to be expected, such development should be appropriate to the nature of the surrounding historic district and not incongruous to it.

“The proposal before the Planning and Zoning Commission with its large proposed parking lot facing the main street is totally incompatible and inappropriate not only to the historic district in question but to the town as a whole,” he continued. “The result will be an eyesore and a very bad precedent.”