The 180-day delay routinely imposed on demolishing properties at least 50 years old in Westport was waived by the Historic District Commission for four houses at its meeting March 13, giving the properties’ owners the right to demolish them. Deterioration of the houses was evident from the road, commission members said, making it unlikely that any historical features could be saved. Above, is a house at 1A Plunkett Place, and below, 5 Brookside Ave. / Photos by Gretchen Webster

By Gretchen Webster

WESTPORT — How important is it to save older buildings in town? What procedures might prevent them from being torn down? How often are efforts to stop demolition of a historic property successful?

Those questions and others are currently under consideration by the Historic District Commission as it reviews the town’s demolition ordinance. 

The ordinance imposes a 180-day waiting period for the demolition of a building 50 years old or over and 500 square feet or larger while the commission considers its historical features.

However, few structures are saved via that process, commission member Wendy Van Wie observed at the board’s March 13 meeting.

“I look at my records from the past — those houses are all gone,” she said of homes the commission previously has considered while under the demolition delay.

The issue is that property owners and prospective builders often are unaware in advance of the demolition-delay policy to put that time to good use, said Steve Smith, head of the town’s Building Department.

“I think what we need is to get the word out early on, identifying some houses that are worth saving, so when they buy it they look at preserving it or saving it,” he said. “They find out too near the end — the architect has done the drawings — it’s too late,” Smith said. If owners or prospective buyers know there is some historic value to a property, they could try to preserve it, he said.

He added that building officials aren’t always in favor of preserving older buildings because they like to see the upgraded wiring and utilities of new construction. 

Historic District Commission member Martha Eidman asked that the panel be provided more information about each property being considered for a demolition-delay waiver.

But he’s in favor of the concept of “deconstruction,” where a building of historic value is taken apart with features salvaged and incorporated in a new structure, as is being done on a house at 105 Harbor Road.

In order for any building to be demolished in Westport, an applicant must file for a demolition permit from the Building Department, regardless of the building’s age, according to Donna Douglass, the Historic District Commission’s coordinator. 

If the structure meets the age requirements, there is automatically a 180-day waiting period imposed before demolition can proceed, the longest period allowed by state law. The Historic District Commission can uphold or waive the waiting period, but cannot extend it.

The HDC regularly considers waiving the demolition delay for houses at its regular meetings, and often allows a builder or homeowner to proceed with the demolition before the waiting period expires. At the March 13 meeting, the panel waived the demolition delay for all four houses under consideration. Two of the homes — one at 1A Plunkett Place and the other at 5 Brookside Drive — are in such disrepair that their dilapidated condition was evident from the road.

The marketing and potential sale of the houses should also be considered in addition to historical factors when determining if they should be demolished and the waiting period shortened, said commission member Martha Eidman, who is a real estate agent.

For instance, one of the houses under a demolition delay had been on the market for almost a year, she said, making it unlikely that it could be saved because of its poor condition. Eidman suggested that a list of important information be put together for each property under a demolition delay to help the commission make decisions earlier and with more information. Factors such as a property in a flood zone, if it has been on the housing market and for how long, and information about other issues could be important in commission decisions on demolition waivers, she said.

“Is the public seeing what they’re going to be judged on?” she said. “I would like it to be clearer.” 

The Historic District Commission can offer historical information on architectural and other features of a building to owners during the demolition-delay period, which Smith said he believes can alter the way a prospective builder or buyer may handle remodeling or rebuilding a property. 

But the Historic District Commission cannot stop a house from being demolished unless it is in a designated local historic district or a designated local historic property, Douglass said.  Owners of properties with a historical designation must obtain a Certificate of Appropriateness from the Historic District Commission to obtain a demolition permit.

“In other words, HDC can only prevent properties in local historic districts and/or designated local historic properties from being demolished,” she said.

The Historic District Commission is working on revisions to the demolition ordinance with the Town Attorney’s Office. The panel is scheduled to review proposed changes again at its April meeting, and plans to vote on the revised ordinance in May.

The town’s existing demolition ordinance can be seen online in the Westport Code of Ordinances.

Freelance writer Gretchen Webster, a Fairfield County journalist and journalism teacher for many years, was editor of the Fairfield Minuteman newspaper for 10 years and teaches journalism at Southern Connecticut State University.