Ridgefield’s Historic District gives South Hall protection, commission rules

South Hall of St. Stephen’s Church is a three story house with a semi-circular driveway in front of it. Church leaders are exploring a possible sale of the building.
South Hall of St. Stephen’s Church is a three story house with a semi-circular driveway in front of it. Church leaders are exploring a possible sale of the building.

St. Stephen’s Church property — including South Hall, which the church is looking into potentially selling — lies within Ridgefield’s Historic District, affording considerable protections against any plans a future owner might have that involve altering the building’s historic look, or demolishing it.
“St. Stephens is definitely in the Ridgefield Historic District, and it’s under the purview of Historic District Commission,” said Dan O’Brien, chairman of the Historic District Commission.
O’Brien noted that state statute 8-30g, which can be used to circumvent local zoning’s density limits, doesn’t nullify the historic district’s protections for the appearance of a building.
“... 8-30g, they can override P&Z, zoning ordinances,” O’Brien said, “but they’re still subject to state statutes under the Historic District Commission, which means they’d need to apply for a certificate of appropriateness from the Historic District Commission for any type of demolition or any type of building of new structures. or alterations to existing structures.”
But he added that the Historic District governs what buildings look like, not what they’re used for — it doesn’t matter if a property is to be used as a single-family house, apartments, affordable housing, or some commercial uses. All that is zoning, not a historic district question.
“Being in a historic district doesn’t prohibit affordable housing being built,” O’Brien said.
“Intended use isn’t something we would enquire about with any property owner, nor would it enter into a decision.”
Historic character
But that doesn’t diminish the Historic District Commission’s authority over the appearance of structures within the districts.
The Town of Ridgefield’s website offers a little background on the Historic District Commission, and describes its authority under state statutes:
“The Commission was created in 1968 for the purpose of preserving the historic character of the homes and properties within Ridgefield’s Historic Districts. The Commission governs new construction, alterations, fences, walkways, lighting, signs, driveways, parking areas and other exterior structural features,” the town website says.
“No buildings within the Districts, which include garages, maintenance sheds and similar structures, may be altered or demolished without prior review and approval from the Commission.”
Ridgefield has two adjacent historic districts where the commission’s authority reigns. One is on either side of Main Street from St. Stephen’s and Lounsbury House south to the blinking light at Wilton Road West. The other is along High Ridge from King Lane south to West Lane, including Parley Lane and West Lane down to the fountain.
These are technically two districts, formed at different times, but the bleed into each other and essentially function as one, according to O’Brien.
There are also three standalone historic properties that have been put under the commission’s authority by prior property owners: 57 Rockwell Road, 75 Olmstead Lane and 37 Catoonah Street.
The town also has five more ceremonial historic districts that are recognized on either the state or national registers of historic places, but are not subject to official regulation by the Historic District Commission. These the Ridgebury, West Mountain, Titicus Hill, Weir Farm and Ridgefield Center historic districts.
Church meeting
St. Stephen’s pastor Whitney Altopp said Tuesday, June 18, that a possible sale of South Hall is still something that church leaders are looking into, and studying, but haven’t decided to pursue — a course that would require a decision by church vestry, a vote of the church or membership, and then permission from Episcopal Church diocesan authorities.
She confirmed that the church’s general membership has been invited to an informational meeting on the South Hall situation on Sunday, June 23, after the 9 a.m. worship service.
“I would add that this is simply updating our members of where we are in the process of studying this,” Altopp said. “We have a lot of work to do before any decision is made. All of the studying (information gathering) won’t be complete for another six months, likely. And once we complete that, then we’ll have a sense of what decisions there are to consider.”
Commercial past
South Hall was a gift to St. Stephen’s in 1958 from Electro-Mechanical Research (EMR), an electronics firm associated with Schlumberger, according to Ridgefield historian Jack Sanders.
The building has been used by Electro-Mechanical Research as its offices since about 1946, according to Sanders.
“I believe they just beat the arrival of zoning,” he said. “So that was a commercial building from 1946 to 1958. EMR moved to Sarasota, Fla., where they did a lot of stuff for the space program and where some descendant of the company still exists.”
EMR bought what was sometimes called “the Tuttle-Smith property” from the Crosby Smith family, which may have been descended from the Rev. James Tuttle-Smith, a decorated Civil War chaplain who moved to Ridgefield after serving as rector of the Church of the Resurrection in Manhattan from 1866 to 1888. The retired Episcopal minister called his property “Oatland” or “Oatlands” and “apparently volunteered at St. Stephen’s next door,” Sanders said.
St. Stephen’s has put South Hall to a variety of uses over the years, with purposes ranging from a preschool to a library and more casual uses such as coffee hours and small meetings.
South Hall was also used by the town Board of Education offices for a period back in the 1950s or 60s, as reported in “Saint Stephen’s Church” history by Bob Haight.
The lot that South Hall sits on contains some of St. Stephen’s parking, and the church allows use of its property for employee parking for several nearby downtown businesses, such as Deborah Ann’s, Ridgefield Hardware, Ridgefield Cleaners, and Georgetown Auto Body.
Focus on appearance
The Historic District Commission is a five-member body, and the certificates of appropriateness it issues to approve specific plans for structures in the historic district are granted by a majority vote of at least three commissioners.
“There’s five standing members, and three alternates,” O’Brien said. “You need three for a quorum and you need a minimum of three for approval — if only three show up, you need all three.”
He said it was unlikely that a hearing on a proposal for South Hall would be conducted with less than the attendance of a full five-member commission.
“I wouldn’t anticipate something like that happening on something as important as this,” O’Brien said.
The Historic District Commission’s authority is essentially designed to protect historic districts from inappropriate visual intrusions. And its consideration of any proposal involving South Hall — or any other structure in the district — would be focused on appearance.
“It just comes down to our purview and whether what’s being proposed as a structure, in terms of its look and construction materials, is appropriate to the historic district,” O’Brien said.
The commission does have authority to rule on plans to take buildings down.
“Obviously, any decision to demolish an historic structure is a separate determination,” O’Brien said. “If part of the plan is to demolish a historic structure and build one or several other structures, the first part of the determination would be whether it’s appropriate to demolish a historic structure — if it’s a historic structure.”
Construction projects or demolitions in the district require certificates of appropriateness from the commission.
“Appropriateness means it’s not really incongruous with the nature of the historic district,” O’Brien said.
And, that’s a judgment call.
“That’s not to say something wouldn’t be approved if it was considered appropriate,” O’Brien said. “Appropriateness is obviously a subjective term.”