NORWALK – After the demolition of a 1677 home, local officials reconsidered city regulations and the balance between historic preservation, affordable housing and energy conservation goals.
At its November meeting, members of the city Ordinance Committee discussed the demolition of the Thomas Hyatt House at 21 Willow Street, which was allegedly taken down without a proper permit. In response, committee members proposed changes to the demolition delay ordinance for any building 50 years or older to extend the delay from 120 to 180 days, and increase fines from $100 to $250 per day.
But at the meeting, member Nora Niedzielski-Eichner questioned whether the amendments would clash with other ongoing efforts.
“I am very concerned that expanding our ability to delay substantial modifications of homes that are not functional really pushes against our environmental goals and our affordable housing goals,” Niedzielski-Eichner said.
Reached by phone, Niedzielski-Eichner told CT Examiner that much of Norwalk’s housing was inefficient, including beach cottages intended for seasonal occupancy and cheaply-made, post-World War II homes.
“Historical homes can be beautiful and amazing, but they can be incredibly expensive for upkeep,” Niedzielski-Eichner said. “Something is always breaking. They weren’t built to modern standards.”
The more efficient homes in the city are, she said, the more the city can expand its affordable housing stock.
“It costs so much less money to run a brand new house from a utilities perspective, and that is so much better for the environment and better for people who are on fixed incomes,” she said. “It’s really a trade off that needs to be considered.”
Niedzielski-Eichner also argued that demolition delays often resulted in costly inconveniences like interrupted contract schedules, and discouraging local development.
Niedzielski-Eichner, who holds a PhD in Art History from Stamford University, said her intention was not to diminish the importance of preservation. But she said that the 50-year window – as proposed in Preservation Connecticut’s model demolition delay ordinance – was too loose.
“Let’s be honest – not every building is historically important,” she said. “Not every building is attractive. Not every building is a great example of the architecture of its moment. And we have to be real about the conflicting goals here.”
She said the proposed amendments were fair in cases like 21 Willow Street, but not for someone tearing down a 1955 home with no architectural or historic significance.
Member Tom Livingston – who helped draft the ordinance amendments – said he understood committee concerns, but said historical preservation and housing stock improvements often complemented one another.
“I don’t think they necessarily have to be in conflict,” said Livingston on a phone call with CT Examiner. “I don’t think that we’re limiting any particular types of housing by preserving a few houses in the city.”
Livingston said that while the amendments could potentially prohibit demolition for certain residents, it was simply a delay for most. Under the proposed changes, historic homeowners would be required to notify all adjoining property owners. The 180-day delay would only go into effect if a neighbor or resident filed a written objection against demolition.
Livingston said that the amendments, including the lengthened delay, were based on similar ordinances in other Connecticut municipalities including Stamford and Westport. He said the ordinance was misunderstood, but encouraged homeowners to think twice before demolishing a historic property.
“It doesn’t mean that if it’s 50-years-old, you can’t demo your house,” he explained. “It just says, ‘Do we need to think about this? Is this something we need to be concerned about?’ People have to understand how this really works. It sounds like a big, bad thing, but in practice, it really isn’t.”
But in response to such concerns, Livingston said, the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency had solicited bids for a survey of historic resources in Norwalk, updating a 1977 survey of South Norwalk and a 2011 survey of the city center and providing context that could improve demolition delay amendments.
“We thought maybe another way of approaching this is to ask to get that inventory, so then it’s a matter of looking at the inventory,” Livingston explained. “If it’s on it, the ordinance applies. If it’s not on it, it doesn’t.”
The survey is expected to begin, after a bid is accepted, in March and end in December 2023.
And while Livingston said the Ordinance Committee would continue to discuss amendments at their January meeting, Niedzielski-Eichner said she saw no need to act before the survey was complete.
In addition to informing ordinances, Brian Bidiolli, executive director of the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency, told CT Examiner that the survey could also encourage incentive programs and support city development goals.
“Our work is in economic development, and we want to work towards competitive advantages that the city has. I think our historic resources are just that,” Bidiolli said. “Making sure that they’re protected provides a lot more economic sustainability, and also embraces our culture and history.”