It’s been nearly two years since the preservation team at the Historical Society of Easton crafted the town’s first Demolition Delay Ordinance. When we began this journey, we were told that Easton would never adopt an such an ordinance, that it had been tried before and never made it past the planning stages. Undeterred, our team forged ahead and arranged our first meeting with First Selectman David Bindelglass.

One of the best qualities in any leader is his or her willingness and ability to listen. We knew going into that meeting that Doctor Bindelglass was interested in making the permitting process in Easton easier and less burdensome, and that our proposal aimed at saving historic structures would run counter to that goal. But David listened intently as we made our pitch to establish a means that would delay the issuance of a demolition permit for some of our most vulnerable historic properties. Delay wouldn’t equate to denial; it would simply provide historians a small window of time to establish a photographic profile of any historically significant building an owner or developer might want to demolish. It also provided a set amount of time for discussions of alternatives other than complete destruction, be it total or partial restoration or salvaging of certain materials that might be reused or repurposed in someone else’s restoration project.

At the end of that first hour, we knew that our first selectman was interested in preserving Easton’s history but that we needed to craft an ordinance that would be as minimally invasive on the rights of property owners as possible. Future meetings with David and other town officials, including the other two members of the board of selectmen, resulted in multiple changes and limitations to the housing inventory our proposed ordinance would cover. In the end, we reached a compromise that everyone thought we could live with. The bi-partisan cooperation we experienced was both refreshing and encouraging.

Easton’s Demolition Delay Ordinance was brought to a public machine vote where it passed by about a three to one margin. We were delighted that the residents of our historic town saw the same value as we did in saving historic buildings whenever possible. Qualifying buildings now face a maximum of a 90-day delay before a demolition permit will be issued. But make no mistake about it, if the owner of that building insists upon demolition, it cannot be stopped by this or any other ordinance presently on the books of Easton.

Prior to Easton’s Demolition Delay Ordinance, buildings such this one at 675 Sport Hill Road were summarily issued a demolition permit and disappeared without a trace. This is the only photo the historical society has of this late 18th century home.

Some people are under the mistaken notion that buildings on either the State or Federal Registry of Historic Buildings are automatically safe from demolition. This is simply not true. Owners of these structures are also free to demolish them should they see fit.

There is only one way to fully ensure that our historic buildings won’t see the wrecking ball. It is called a historic preservation easement.

As defined by the National Park Service (NPS) that oversees and approves national historic building designations: A historic preservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement, typically in the form of a deed, which permanently protects a significant historic property. Since it is a perpetual easement, the owner is assured that the property’s historic character will be preserved.

Once a historic preservation easement has been duly recorded on the property’s deed and filed with the Town Clerk in the municipality where the property is located, it becomes a permanent means of protecting that property from either demolition or significant alterations that would change the structures beyond the restrictions intended by the original grantor of that easement.

Historic preservation easements are relatively simple and inexpensive to create. They are completely voluntary, but they are also the only way a current property owner can rest assured that their beloved historical property will forever be protected from destruction or massive out-of-character alterations in the future.

Preservation easements typically prohibit current and future owners from demolishing the historic structures listed within and also limit changes that aren’t consistent with the historic nature of the property. Restrictions on subdividing and developing the property are often included.

Does a historic preservation easement affect the value of the property? The not so definitive answer is “maybe.” A developer who wants to demolish an existing structure to make a property easier to sub-divide will likely look elsewhere; but isn’t that what someone who wants to save their historic property wants? And if a potential buyer balks at buying a property that is protected in some way, that buyer isn’t likely the right buyer for a historic property in the first place. But in reality, most buyers of historic properties are interested because of the historical provenance, and a historic preservation easement would not be a deterrent or a diminishing factor in the purchase.  

According to the NPS: Under the terms of a typical preservation easement, a property owner places restrictions on the development of, or changes to, the property and transfers these restrictions to a qualified organization whose mission includes environmental protection, land conservation, open space preservation, or historic preservation. Although the appointment of an overseer of such an easement is not required, it offers the grantor peace of mind knowing that there will be someone with a vested interest making certain that the easement will be properly adhered to. In many cases, easements on properties that are not on a state of national registry, are transferred to the local historical society to oversee.

State and federal designation are beneficial in that both open the door to a multitude of low interest loans or outright grants to assist in the restoration, preservation, and maintenance of historic buildings. Those types of loans and grants often require an easement granted to the provider for a specific amount of time to assure that the structures involved are properly preserved.

In Redding, the Rider Barn on Umpawaug Road has a historic preservation easement that was given to the Redding Historical Society as part of an agreement with the town when the original owners wanted to subdivide the family homestead making sure that the historic buildings on that property would survive. Two years ago, when the new owners of that property wanted to restore the barn, the Society was called in to meet with the contractor. It approved certain aspects of the restoration while denying others that would have altered the character of the of the building that the easement had been created to protect. It was neither a protracted nor complicated process and the project moved forward to everyone’s satisfaction.

Redding’s historic Rider Barn is forever protected by a historic preservation easement.

In Easton, we constantly face the possibility that some of our most precious historical structures may be either lost or so drastically altered that they will lose their significance. It is the sincere hope of the Historical Society of Easton that present owners of these properties will consider placing historic preservation easements on their deeds that will forever protect the structures on their land from being lost.

At this point, we are particularly concerned about the potential sale and transfer of the Staples Academy Building and the historical Congregational Church that sits across the street from it. Despite our concerted and continuing efforts to convince the congregation to seek state and federal historical designations and to establish some restrictions to protect the integrity of the historical nature of these structures by creating historical preservation easements, our advice seemingly remains unheeded.

The Staples Academy Building as it appeared in 1937. Only a historic preservation easement will guarantee that it survives another 200 years.

We can only hope that they and other owners of historic homes act before it is too late, and we certainly encourage anyone in Easton who owns such a property to consider creating an easement of their own if they wish to protect their property for future generations.

The Historical Society of Easton is here to help. We can answer questions and aid in the process of obtaining both state and federal designation. Our preservation advice and assistance are always free of charge.  We can be contacted at:  hsectresearch@gmail.com.

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By Bruce Nelson

Director of Research for the Historical Society of Easton Town Co-Historian for the Town of Redding, Connecticut Author/Publisher at Sport Hill Books