Regulation 32-18 Says: Don’t Demolish. Renovate!

It’s not easy to save historic structures in Westport.

Economics, legal restrictions, changing tastes — all make it much simpler to tear down old buildings, rather than save them.

The town desperately needs a regulation that encourages homeowners and builders to preserve, rehabilitate, restore, reconstruct and/or adapt historic proprties.

Well, shiver me timbers! There is one!

Zoning Regulation 32-18 covers “Historic Residential Structures.” Actually, it does far more. It encourages their preservation.

But you’d have to be someone — an architect, say — well versed in Westport’s zoning code to know it.

In the spring of 2020 Simon and Robbyn Hallgarten — who had already renovated (and substantially saved) a historic home near Longshore — bought property on North Avenue.

Simon and Robbyn Hallgarten’s main house, on North Avenue.

The land — between Staples High School and Cross Highway — included a Victorian home and carriage house. Both were built around 1886.

Several “experts” told Simon that if he wanted to do renovate the carriage house, it had to be moved to conform to property setbacks. Otherwise he’d have to leave it as is, or tear it down.

Fortunately, Simon kept asking. Finally he found an architect who said: “Look at Section 32-18.” (You can, too. Click here.) 

Simon and Robbyn saved the 130-year-old structure.

Under normal zoning — because the carriage house sits within the property’s setback — any modifications or change of use would not be permitted.

Under 32-18 though, the Hallgartens provided the town with a perpetual maintenance easement over the structure. In return, they converted the historic timber-framed building into a garage gym, spare bedroom, en suite bath and great 2nd floor office/den space.

The renovated carriage house.

Simon wonders “how many other historic buildings could be maintained if only owners and architects were aware that they could be significantly renovated, and even go through a change of use – subject only to an agreement to maintain the structure going forward.”

Well — in a slightly different form — here’s another 32-18 success story. Last April, I wrote about a 2-story, 1,230-square foot 1892 farmhouse on Turkey Hill South.

Rahul Ghai and his wife Priyanka Singh used the regulation — obtained by the prior owners — to restore the 127-year-old structure, and also build a large house nearby.

The project won a Connecticut Preservation Award — one of only 10 in the state.

The story said that 32-18 had already prevented 22 other historic structures from being demolished.

Of course, 22 (now 23) successful preservation projects is a drop in the bucket, compared to the number of houses being demolished annually.

So whether you’re a developer, architect, homeowner — or someone who lives near a historic structure — remember those numbers: 32-18.

When you hear of a successful renovation using that regulation, let me know.

Maybe one day there will be so many, it will no longer be news.

13 responses to “Regulation 32-18 Says: Don’t Demolish. Renovate!

  1. Hey Simon…Nice to see you’re still fixing up older properties. I take care of a great older estate near you…Echowood.

  2. This house shown was my listing a couple of owners ago – still one of my sentimental favorites – my clients at the time lived there for many years and told me how many people used to pull up and tell them how much they admired this sweet, sweet home – was known for its homey, sea foam green shutters and gorgeous old trees! I promoted the expansion potential with this regulation in mind at the time since I knew about it, though few others did. But try as I might, there was not nearly the interest in outbuildings as there is now in our post-Covid time — for extended family dwellings, remote work spaces, home gym/recreation space, etc. In fact, I recall conversations with appraisers about this and other listings I’ve had over the years that met these requirements, and some already in possession of coolest cottages, quaintest barns, accessory apartments…and we shook our heads sadly at the time that most buyers assigned little or no value to these amenities-for that matter, had far less interest in more acreage for other recreational activities or privacy buffer as well. Luckily our buyers at the time appreciated the possibilities though they didn’t get to realize them. But in our new era, I’m so excited to to see this tasteful realization here, and the renewed interest from buyers’ in general – only took a pandemic! No doubt, as you suggest, a lot more Westporters will jump in – if they can meet the requirements.

  3. Richard Johnson

    Thrilled to see a great home preserved. This regulation is good, but it’s clearly not enough. Many people will be reluctant to grant a permanent easement to the town, and for good reason. But individual homeowners are rarely to blame. Most of the historic structures we’ve lost are the direct result of spec building by well-known developers in town. They just don’t care about much more than maximizing the number of square feet and bedrooms to turn a quick profit. It’s often harder, more complicated, and more time consuming to preserve a historic home than just rip it down and build a new one. It’s really sad because for some reason, these cheap, ugly developer houses proliferate here in Westport, while neighboring communities enjoy many more historic homes and much higher quality new construction. We’re clearly doing something wrong. The clear-cutting is, of course, a symptom of the same slash-and-burn model of development that the town allows builders to engage in.

  4. Linda Montecalvo

    Agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Johnson. I can’t help but feel as I drive around town that the new spec houses are not only uninteresting but lack any connection to their wider environment. At times I thought – If I were today making an investment in a home today, I might not choose Westport for this very reason. Again and again I feel that the town is not forward thinking and this issue is a case in point.

  5. Catherine Walsh

    The most beautiful feature of 32-18 is the flexibility. The commission has unlimited discretion to provide accommodations (incentives) to save historic homes. It is the most forward thinking regulation in the P&Z tool kit.

    Westport is 98% developed and about one half of the lots are non conforming. The back door that has been used to overdevelop Westport is via text amendment which can be brought forth by anyone. I’ve heard some of the most heart felt lies being spun to push thru projects. One of my favorite regular presenters likes to say ” It’s the right thing to do”. Manipulation 101.

    I’m gratified to see the tree canopy and the drainage issues finally gaining traction. West Cog conducted a Tree Canopy study about 4 years ago which found us to be grossly deficient in coverage.

    Downtown is built on a garbage dump and DEEP studies and monitors flooding issues regularly, both coastal and flood plain. Kudo’s to Mr. Gill for bringing the issue forward and for connecting the dots about the flooding all over the town.

    The town is overbuilt but the solution is simple. The word is NO. No one purchases a property based on what the regulations could allow. Properties are purchased based on what is allowed currently. However, in order to maximize return, developers will try to change the rules to suit their project. (normal). Just say NO.

  6. Donald Bergmann

    Former P&Z Chair Cathy Walsh often uses strong terms and in this case she is correct. Developers primarily seek profits, though they cater to the market. Society needs to continue to become more sensitive and renovation versus tear downs is something that most builders sadly avoid. Residents need to take some initiative. Also, the HDC, along with Jen Tooker, our First Selectwoman, should explore incentives in addition to that under 32-18. One obvious incentive would be a real estate tax reduction so long as an historic home is preserved. Under our excellent HDC, i am sure there are many possibilities to be explored. Our present P&Z Commission is sensitive to all “good” ideas, but for me their view of “good” tends too often to favor YES, not NO, to use Cathy Walsh’s word.

  7. Great to hear this! I am on the hunt for a converted barn, post and beam, or other older historic structure. Preferably one that has been renovated in the past few decades (updated guts – plumbing, eletrical, etc), some TLC no problem for us, but not looking to undertake a major conversion. Ideally, a property with a main house and second structure such as a cottage/carriage house/other dwelling unit already on-site for my mother to stay in, while we live in the main house. Any leads, please let me know!

  8. Rebecca Ellsley

    Joshua give me a call 203-644-2121 Rebecca

  9. Catherine Walsh

    Joshua-I have the perfect property for you also-but not ready to leave…unless…what’s your bid? I couldn’t resist.

  10. Bill Strittmatter

    After clicking through the link to the Atlantic on the Ruth Shalit Barrett story, i saw a featured article somewhat relevant to this post. While it mostly talks about houses built in the 50’s and 60’s, it is a different perspective than the usual take. And from the Atlantic of all places…not Developers Monthly.

    “In housing circles, one hears a lot of self-righteous discussion about the need for more preservation. And many American homes doubtless deserve to stick around. But the truth is that we fetishize old homes. Whatever your aesthetic preferences, new construction is better on nearly every conceivable measure, and if we want to ensure universal access to decent housing, we should be building a lot more of it.”

    • The Atlantic author has an axe to grind here: he’s out promoting a new book taking the currently faddish view that eliminating low-density zoning laws (like Westport’s) will somehow make housing more affordable. I am not convinced. Cities with the densest housing are among the most expensive places to live. And to compare suburbs, Great Neck is much more densely developed than Westport…but no more affordable. Academic urban planners like that Atlantic author have a checkered history. A few decades ago, they told us the key to making cities more livable was to knock down brownstones and other low-rise apartment and build massive housing projects. The Bronx is a poster child for their failed vision.

  11. I was dismayed to learn of a new home being built on tiny Hickory Hill- it will be a 5 bedroom – massive compared to the rest of the charming homes on the street.