A bill that would offer a workaround to the state’s architectural preservation laws limiting demolitions is pitting housing interests and CCM, an organization representing the state’s 168 member towns, against the state’s preservation community.
The State Historic Preservation Office, known as SHPO, is currently has oversight of the demolition and restoration of historic properties. But earlier this month, the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities lobbied for an appeals process on SHPO decisions, citing millions spent on litigation and remediation and arguing the need to balance historic preservation with economic development goals.
“It really is a very narrow piece of legislation,” said Randy Collins, an advocacy manager for CCM. “But when you look at it in context of all the other pieces of legislation that are going on, I think it becomes more relevant.”
If passed, HB 6756 would allow any municipality to appeal decisions made by the State Historic Preservation Officer regarding the renovation or rehabilitation of a historic property and force a hearing with the Department of Economic and Community Development.
“There are numerous examples of municipalities that have seen significant economic projects, projects that would have created needed jobs, developed affordable housing or created community spaces be put on hold or not enacted,” Collins said in written testimony to the Commerce Committee.
But while CCM is supported by the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, a group representing the state’s smaller town governments, over 30 historic preservation advocates, academic and organizations have opposed the bill.
“Historic preservation is economic development,” said Patrick McMahon, board president of Connecticut Preservation Action, in a call with CT Examiner. The umbrella organization advocates in the legislature on behalf of state and local preservation nonprofits.
McMahon said preservation played a major role in marketing the state, as Connecticut’s historic buildings and municipalities drew in tourism.
State and federal historic rehabilitation tax credits also help support economic development, McMahon said. Private developers earned a 25 percent tax credit for the restoration of certified historic structures through the Connecticut Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit Program, and a 20 percent tax credit through the federal program.
McMahon said the rehabilitation of historic mill buildings was proof of the success of using tax credits to harness preservation for the purposes of development.
“They’re now being converted to residential apartments or some form of mixed-use or business incubators,” McMahon said. “The leveraging of that historic tax credit is just absolutely tremendous.”
McMahon said that members of Connecticut Preservation Action were also concerned that a hearing officer employed by Department of Economic and Community Development would not have the training in historic preservation needed to make fair determinations.
“The State Historic Preservation Officer is the one in the state who is supposed to be making these decisions for the protection and preservation of the historic assets,” McMahon said.
In written testimony to the Commerce Committee, the State Historic Preservation Officer Jonathan Kinney said SHPO does not view historic preservation and economic development as “two opposite ends of a spectrum.”
“Historic preservation activities are an important economic driver in many local communities, for the State of Connecticut, and across the nation,” Kinney said.
Kinney said that in fiscal year 2022, SHPO approved over $27 million in historic rehabilitation efforts, which leveraged almost $93 million in private investment.
Kinney also said that SHPO oversees about 3,000 projects a year, and said less than three percent of the projects require the expense of mitigation.
“We pride ourselves on working collaboratively to protect historic assets and revitalize communities,” Kinney said.”
But at a March 2 Commerce Committee public hearing, Thomas Hyde, chief executive officer of the Naugatuck Valley Regional Development Corporation, told lawmakers about SHPO decisions that he said had frustrated local development.
Hyde acknowledged the value of historic preservation, but said cities like Waterbury with numerous brownfields – contaminated industrial sites – were hampered by the need for SHPO approval to demolish old properties.
“A lot of these properties aren’t something that developers are even going to look at, let alone be interested in or invest in,” Hyde said.
Hyde said he supported the bill because, as the interim director of Waterbury Development Corporation, he’d run into costly disagreements with SHPO.
“In working with the SHPO, we’ve had some success, but there have also been some issues that we’ve run into in the past,” Hyde said. “… I think creating something where we can appeal those decisions without having to go through costly litigation would be a huge benefit for municipalities and economic development professionals like myself.”
Hyde pointed to an old industrial building at 835 South Main Street in Waterbury, which was abandoned around 2000. The city took over the property in 2010 with the intent to demolish and clean up the property, he said, and notified SHPO of their plan. According to Hyde, SHPO assured Waterbury both in 2010 and 2011 that the building had no historical significance.
But when the city told SHPO they’d be seeking a grant through the Community Investment Fund to demolish the building last year, Hyde said SHPO told Waterbury that the 2010 and 2011 letters were no longer valid.
“That was obviously a little frustrating,” Hyde said.
Hyde said that Waterbury and SHPO agreed that in order to demolish the 835 South Main Street building, the city would set aside $150,000 for a separate historic restoration project elsewhere. Still, he questioned the state decision.
“It’s essentially collapsing in on itself,” Hyde said. “It’s a huge safety hazard for basically everyone. It’s located in one of the poorest census tracts in the state, and maybe the country.”
At the hearing, a lawmaker representing one the state’s wealthiest towns, State Rep. Stephen Meskers, D-Greenwich, also spoke in “strong support” of the bill, arguing that delays to redevelopment were costly to all involved.
“I think adaptive reuse of historic properties requires more collaboration,” Meskers said. “The streetscapes, the restoration, bringing up to date the technicals, ADA accessibility are all going to require a fair amount of flexibility, so I’m happy to see this bill before us.”
During the call with CT Examiner, CCM’s Collins said that he felt comfortable moving forward with the bill with the support of some of the state’s poorest towns like Waterbury and Naugatuck.
“If we can bring these abandoned, dirty properties back online – that’s a win for the municipality,” Collins said.
Collins said CCM was not trying to upend oversight SHPO, but wanted to find an option that sidesteps litigation – especially because SHPO was represented by the Office of the Attorney General.
“No one wants to go up against the Attorney General’s office,” Collins said. “They’ve got a much bigger piggy bank.”
According to Collins, the bill strikes a balance between historic preservation and economic development, particularly state’s housing goals.
“You could lose out on an opportunity where a developer says, ‘You know what, it’s just easier to build new.’ And then the existing structure just stays dilapidated, dangerous and dragging down property value,” Collins said. “…we wonder why housing is unaffordable.”