HADDAM — The Planning and Zoning Commission voted unanimously Thursday to deny a request for a special permit to demolish a historic residential structure at 140 Dublin Hill Road known as the Leverett Spencer House.
The commission reviewed the application under the Section 15A Historic Preservation by Special Permit, which requires a special permit/site plan review for the demolition of any building listed in the survey, “Haddam Survey of Historical and Architectural Resources,” conducted by the Greater Middletown Trust. The building, which is listed on the survey, is an example of workers’ housing in Higganum during the second half of the 19th century.
The building owners, Tim and Jean Brewer, have lived next door at 144 Dublin Hill Road for 32 years. They purchased Leverett Spencer House about two years ago and filed for a special permit to demolish the building effective July 3. The application provides for a 180-day demolition delay that will expire Dec. 30.
Tim Brewer, an architect and principal of TLB Architecture in Chester, said he had expertise in refurbishing older buildings. In his Aug. 31 letter to the commission, Brewer said the house has far more problems than he anticipated.
“After closing, we spent the next several months working with hazardous materials contractors and testing labs to characterize and legally remove and dispose of moldy interior construction and a non-functioning circa 1940 converted steam boiler, complete with an asbestos-lined (collapsed) firebox,” he wrote. “As a practicing architect for over 35 years, these discoveries and their associated expenses were of little surprise to us. During this time, we also set out to evaluate the feasibility of restoration of, and/or additions to the structure, together with site improvements that would be required to prepare the building for re-use as a rental property, bed and breakfast, in-law apartment or as a single family residence.”
At the meeting on Thursday, Brewer set up a large easel and displayed photographs and drawings to the commission. He described the historic details of the 1875 house as well as its problems, which included water infiltration, a failed chimney and foundation, and the need to replace the heating, plumbing, septic and electrical systems as well as the kitchen and bathroom.
He said parking on the property was a problem because of the well located in the front yard to the south of the house and that grading issues on the north side of the house would require “major civil engineering” to create a safe driveway.
The house has a steep staircase with narrow treads, which Brewer said was dangerous enough to render the second floor inaccessible. He said the stair geometry could not be resolved because the house lacked the needed square footage.
According to Brewer’s estimates, the needed investment of $300,000 to $500,000 was disproportionate to the building and the site.
“When you do all those things and make the investments, what you have is a cute little building with some services in it … but it’s not safe,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense at the end of the day.
He said the two options were to move the building elsewhere, preferably within Haddam, or to demolish it.
He added that his intention was to dissolve the property line between the two parcels rather than build another house.
A number of commission members questioned Brewer’s claim that he did not know the extent of the property’s problems, considering his expertise as an architect and because he had lived next door for years.
“You bought the house sight unseen and you bought it anyway, knowing it was historic… you knew about the stairs,” said Jamin Laurenza, secretary of the commission.
The hearing became somewhat contentious when Brewer said the house was uninhabitable by a family, but commission member Gina Block said she currently lived in a similar house with an even steeper staircase.
Elizabeth Malloy, executive director at Haddam Historical Society, said the location of the house was important in terms of the history of the town and that moving it was only a second choice.
“While there are other workers’ houses, this one was significant for its connection to local industries, which were the backbone of our village during the 19th and 20th centuries,” she said. “Dublin Hill neighborhood was made up of 19th century mill houses and is significant as an area where workers lived.
Malloy said the historical society filed an objection on July 3 to the application. “This allows us 180 days with the applicant and the town to find alternative solutions.”
Town resident Chip Frey said he wanted the town to defend and preserve its history.
“I hate to see a precedent set for somebody to come in and buy a piece of our history and then get rid of it because it doesn’t fit their needs,” he said.
A number of members of the public also opposed the application.
Bill Warner, town planner, said the special permit application process requires the applicant to make an effort to consider every option to save the building and he wanted to see more options than moving the building or demolishing it.
“[Brewer] is here because he wants to demolish the building. I think there needs to be an option C and D. There could be more alternatives than to demolish it or get it off the property,” he said. “I recommend that you deny this application and that we work together to see if there is some alternative. I don’t know why he doesn’t put it on the market and sell it … There are people who are interested in living in an historic home who would buy it.”
Warner added that if the building is torn down and the two lots are not merged then the Brewers could build a new house on the second lot. He also said the house will lose its historic designation if moved.
At the end of the 180 days, Brewer can reapply for a special permit to demolish the building if no other alternatives have been found.
“I just think there needs to be more thought before we allow people to tear down your history,” Warner said.