NORWALK – Officials revised a city regulation which allowed for the demolition of a 1677 home, removing exemptions for homeowners and introducing large fines for residents despite concerns of a “blanket” ordinance.
The demolition of the Thomas Hyatt House at 21 Willow Street in Oct. 2022 prompted debate among the Ordinance Committee – a subcommittee of the Common Council – about the need for increased penalties to buttress historic preservation in the town. After four months of revisions to the city’s demolition delay ordinance, the committee approved moving the changes to a public hearing – but not without hesitation from members.
In Nov. 2022, the committee proposed extending the demolition delay from the original 120 to 180 days, and increasing daily fines on homeowners from $100 to $250. Following a Tuesday debate, the approved ordinance reverted back to the 120-day delay but kept the $250 per day increase, capping the total fines imposed at $30,000.
Members also removed an exemption which – under a state statute – allowed the owner of 21 Willow Street to demolish the historic home without a license.
“That exception allowed the owner of Willow Street to avoid getting a permit, avoid having [the chief building official] go out and inspect, and resulted in… exposed wires and other very dangerous situations on site,” said committee member Tom Livingston.
Norwalk’s original demolition delay included an exception under Section 29-402(c) of the Connecticut General Statutes, which states that as long as a property owner is present on the demolition site and liable for any damage, they do not need to obtain a demolition license from the Department of Construction Services.
Bill Ireland, the city’s chief building official, told committee members that the original demolition delay ordinance was useless in the case of 21 Willow Street.
“It’s a travesty what you saw happen on Willow Street, but this ordinance would not have stopped that from happening because everything was done without a permit from the start,” Ireland said. “It was done by a homeowner who was pleading ignorance to the law.”
Under both the original and revised text, all Norwalk property owners looking to demolish a home built over 50 years ago must alert nearby neighbors, who could object to the demolition. If there is an objection, the city’s Historical Commission would then discuss demolition with the property owner before the end of the 120-day delay period.
According to Ireland, the 50-year standard – a common standard both statewide and nationwide – did not majorly inconvenience property owners as there were only three resident objections to demolition in the last few years, compared to 136 completed demolitions.
But some members continued to question the need for including the 50-year standard, especially given that Norwalk had just requested a citywide inventory of historic resources.
Member Nora Niedzielski-Eichner said she recognized that the 50-year rule had not been overly burdensome over the last few years, but questioned its purpose.
“That’s still 130 applications that have not generated, in fact, any significant historic preservation for the city,” Niedzielski-Eichner said. “So, why go through that whole process to achieve ultimately very little?”
Niedzielski-Eichner said she thinks Norwalk should instead create a process that efficiently identifies and preserves historic properties rather than discouraging development.
“I think that this regulation – again, from my perspective – just sends the wrong message in terms of what our priorities as a city are in relation to balancing regulation with the objective of encouraging constructive and safe development,” said Niedzielski-Eichner.
Niedzielski-Eichner said she’d prefer to use the historic resource inventory as the demolition delay standard, and suggested that the Historical Commission members update the list each year.
But on a phone call with CT Examiner, Livingston pointed to time and cost constraints.
“I think [the inventory] is the best way – it’s cleaner, it’s easier,” Livingston said. “But we’re not there yet.”
Livingston explained that the new inventory would take a couple of years to complete, and said a reliable inventory was costly to the city.
“This is no knock on the commission, but I don’t know that we have expertise on a commission to go out and identify these buildings, and that’s why it’s been proposed that we hire consultants to do that,” Livingston said.
Livingston said that even with the original 50-year standard and 120-day delay remaining unchanged in the revised ordinance, the regulations would still support the committee’s original goal – discouraging the demolition of historic homes.
“The fundamental purpose is still there to try and protect our historic resources, but at the same time recognizing that we don’t want to unduly burden our homeowners.”
In an effort to reduce the burden on homeowners, committee member Ed Camacho questioned on Tuesday the need for a 180-day delay, which would have capped the total cost of fines at $45,000.
“I don’t know that municipalities have the authority to fine people that much,” Camacho said. “I think there has to be a cap under state law because I’ve never seen a fine that large.”
Attorney Brian Candela told Camacho that in researching other demolition delays, he found that most municipalities charged daily fines to homeowners with “no cut off at all.”
Following discussions, Livingston proposed keeping the 120-day delay, reducing the fine cap from $45,000 to $30,000 and removing the demolition license exemption.
“People are going to think twice before violating the ordinance because I think there’s some real teeth in the $30,000,” Livingston told CT Examiner.
All members voted to move the revised ordinance to a public hearing, with the exception of Niedzielski-Eichner. Livingston said the public hearing will be held at the March Ordinance Committee meeting, and members could decide to move the revisions to the entire Common Council, make additional revisions or reject the changes altogether.