Endangered Species

On April 7, 2022, one of the older and more importantly historical buildings on Main Street in the idyllic town of Bridgewater, Connecticut was demolished and removed in a matter of a few hours. Built in the middle of the 19th century, the structure had served as a school, the town hall, and later as the hall for Connecticut Grange 153. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The building was purchased by the Grange in 1900 and a second story was soon added. Like most rural towns in Connecticut in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Grange was the focal point of the community. It was there that town meetings were often held given that the Grange usually maintained the largest building within most small communities. Plays and musical performances often took place there as many of those halls had raised stages for such events. Community dinners and dances frequently filled the calendars of most local Grange’s. Other than places of worship, the Grange was the most important building in town and certainly the best known and most used. As these iconic structures are lost, so are parts of our history.

C.1910. Bridgewater Grange Hall after second floor was added. Note the horse sheds behind the building that were used by both the neighboring church and the Grange.

The Bridgewater Grange Hall was located in the heart of the village where everyone who lived in town could see it and where many town residents passed by it nearly every day. Since 1999, it had been a municipally owned property that has long been at the center of a dispute that had preservationists pleading with the town to save it by selling it to the Bridgewater Preservation Association that was willing to restore it. Although the town building inspector deemed it unsafe, the town insisted that anyone wishing to purchase the property pay $400,000 for something the town assessor had appraised for only $267,100. The list of requirements the town attached to any possible sale was so stringent and cost prohibitive that they found no takers in the six months it was listed for sale.

It was obvious from the beginning that the town wanted to retain the land for another use. It just didn’t want the old Grange Hall building, that they had let fall into ruin, to be part of that equation. So, in the end, it was demolished, and another important part of the town’s history was lost without mitigation that might have made the building’s ultimate demise more palatable.

April 7, 2022. In a matter of hours, the iconic Bridgewater Grange Hall was reduced to a pile of rubble by demolition crews.

The point in this example is that there is little that can be done to save some of our most valuable historic buildings when the owners want to use the property on which those structures stand for something that better fits their needs or wants. Many of our historic structures have already been lost. Many more are in still in danger. Those remaining have truly become an endangered species.

So, how do we mitigate the loss of these historic treasures?

The simplest, least costly, and easiest to manage solution is to adopt demolition delay ordinances that allow those interested in preservation the opportunity to photograph, document, and record the history of a structure before it meets the wrecking ball. Such delays also afford town appointed historic review committees the time to negotiate an amicable agreement with a property owner to salvage at least part of a historical structure that could be reused in someone else’s renovation or preservation project. In the best-case scenario, that committee might be able to convince the property owner to restore part or all of a significant structure rather than tear it down completely. Even if the ultimate outcome is demolition, society gains the benefit of retaining a more complete history of the structure(s) lost.

As of this writing, Easton has no such ordinance on the books, but on April 25, 2022, the citizens of this town will have the opportunity at the Town Meeting to discuss the proposed demolition delay ordinance and then vote on its adoption on May 3, 2022.

How did we get here and what does this ordinance entail?

When Elizabeth Boyce and I joined the board of directors at the Historical Society of Easton in the summer of 2018 we spent several weeks going over the collection of materials housed within the office of the society. We learned about the past successes of the society, and we began to see, and then explore, opportunities where we could contribute to the town’s future as well as its past. One particular area that surprised us was Easton’s lack of any form of protection for her historical structures.

I had recently begun my tenure as an appointed Town Historian in Redding. Part of the duties for that position is serving as a consultant for Redding’s Historical Review Committee that reviews applications for demolition of the town’s more historically significant and sensitive structures. Redding adopted their version of a demolition delay ordinance back in 2013, and as I soon discovered, it was neither particularly burdensome for property owners nor for those in charge of examining and reviewing the buildings in question.

When Elizabeth and I raised the proposition of the historical society crafting and promoting a similar demolition delay ordinance for Easton, everyone on our board agreed something needed to be done to help preserve our history, but how to get such an ordinance adopted was the question. Since we knew that well over fifty of the municipalities in Connecticut had already adopted a demolition delay ordinance (that number currently stands at 59), we were determined an attempt to win support for at least a minimally protective ordinance would be well worth the effort.

In preliminary discussions with members of the town government, we learned that some of them were concerned that we were looking to draft legislation that would prevent property owners from exercising their right to demolish any older home to make room for a new structure better suited for 21st century living. That was not the case. We explained that we were looking for a delay, not an outright ban, on demolishing historically important buildings. We showed them a copy of Redding’s demolition delay ordinance and offered our willingness to present a proposal that only covered an established list of specific structures to which the ordinance would apply. Also, we felt that our time frame for a demolition delay could be as little as half of Redding’s 180 days. After several rounds of considerate questions, they voiced a willingness to work with us.

While Covid restrictions made our negotiation sessions more inconvenient, we were all pleased that we could sit down and discuss concerns and solutions. Using Redding’s ordinance as a template – which I knew from first-hand experience worked rather well – we shortened the delay period from the 180 days the State of Connecticut will allow to a more palatable 90. While Preservation Connecticut suggested that we delay demolitions on all buildings that are 50 years old or older, we limited the structures that this ordinance would cover to only those in our long-established Historic Resources Inventory. That list is comprised of 230-plus structures, or about ten percent of the total inventory of homes currently standing in Easton. That list was compiled by an independent firm hired by the town using a government grant in the late 1990’s. It is based on age, known historical provenance, and/or significant architectural features. In March of 2022, prior to submitting the inventory to the town for use in implementing our proposed ordinance, we reviewed the list, removing about a dozen structures that have been lost since it was first filed with the State of Connecticut and adding about a dozen more that have since met the same qualifications as the ones on the original list.

In addition to meeting with town officials from Easton, we spent countless hours writing emails and making phone calls to state preservationists, archaeologists, land & use officials from municipalities that already had demolition delays in place to get their input on what did and didn’t work well. We read and reviewed several delay ordinances that other towns already use and scoured news articles to see which ones were meeting resistance with legal issues. Finally, adjustments were made to accommodate each and every concern expressed by the three selectmen and the town’s building inspector. After multiple revisions, the proposed ordinance was presented to the Board of Selectmen in March and after a question-and-answer session, they unanimously voted to put it on the agenda for approval at the upcoming Town Meeting in April.

To help residents better understand how this ordinance will work, the text of the proposed ordinance is presented below:

Simply put, this ordinance applies only to those structures that are listed in the Inventory to Historic Homes in Easton. If the proposed ordinance is enacted, going forward, the Historical Review Committee will be tasked with periodically reviewing and revising this list based on the same criteria on which it was originally based. The current list is shown here:

While 90-days is the maximum amount of time town officials can delay issuing a demolition permit under the provisions of our proposed ordinance, if the consultants to the Historic Review Committee recommend lifting that delay because the structure is either too weak to be reasonably restored or the building no longer fits the definitions of being historically sensitive or significant, the Committee is free to lift the delay immediately after they meet.

Property owners who can reach an agreement regarding mitigation of the impending demolition can also see their delay lifted far earlier than 90 days so that work can commence sooner. That mitigation can be something as minimal as allowing the historical consultants access to the property to take photographs and document historic construction techniques and materials used. Or it might be that they agree to salvage certain parts of a structure for reuse by others. Examples being hardware such as hinges and latches; window glass; hand hewn rafters and/or beams; or any other items the consultants might deem of value to other restorers. Property owners do not have to agree to restoration of any structure no matter how sensitive or significant the Committee or its consultants consider it to be. Even if the property owner shows no willingness to mitigate, at the end of the 90-day maximum delay, they will be allowed to proceed with their original plans.

Is this ordinance perfect? No. We consider it to be a reasonable approach towards mitigating, and occasionally preventing, the loss of our most precious historical buildings without significantly impacting the rights of any owner to do what they wish with their property within the current confines of Easton’s zoning regulations. Fifteen out of twenty-three towns and cities in Fairfield County already have such an ordinance in effect. If we truly care about preserving our history as much as we do our pristine lands, Easton should become number sixteen.

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