Tear Down That House! Inside Westport’s Historic District Commission

The Historic District Commission’s recent 2023 Preservation Awards — honoring owners and architects of 6 homes, 2 restaurants, an office and church, who kept the streetscape bones of their buildings while modernizing the interiors — drew approving comments from hard-to-please “06880” readers.

Many also wondered: Why doesn’t the HDC preserve more buildings?

The answer is: They can’t.

But you and I can.

Today, chair Grayson Braun and vice chair Scott Springer offer a brief “Historic District Commission 101” intro course.

They note that the HDC is a volunteer organization. Members are appointed by the 1st selectperson.

The commission has an office in Town Hall, and is supported by an administrator — currently Donna Douglass — who is a town employee.

The HDC offers support and guidance to help property owners, in the service of historic preservation.

Braun and Springer’s routes to the commission are typical.

Grayson Braun

Braun and her husband moved to Westport in 1997, for “the historic feel and character” of the town. When a developer planned a project for their Gorham Avenue neighborhood, she worked with the HDC to gain “Local Historic District” status for the area, making demolition more difficult. In 2009, she joined the board.

Springer has been a Westporter since 2008. In 2014 he established his own architecture firm here. He was appointed to the board in 2019, to add an architectural perspective to the HDC’s work.

The 2 members stress: Their work is, by town and state ordinance, strictly advisory. They work with other town agencies, like the Architectural Review Board, to establish Local Historic Districts and designate Local Historic Properties.

But they cannot unilaterally stop teardowns.

The only time the HDC can prevent demolition is if a property is designated as a local historic property or a local historic district.

When a homeowner, commercial property owner or developer of any other building 50 years or older (and 500 square feet or larger) requests a demolition permit, there is an automatic 180-day waiting period.

They can apply to the HDC for a waiver. The HDC can uphold or deny that request.

That 6-month period is the maximum allowed by state regulation. Many municipalities adopted a shorter waiting time.

If the HDC denies the request, the goal is for something to happen in those 6 months. A stakeholder can come forward with an alternative to demolition. An architect may come up with a plan for zoning relief, in return for preservation.

Those things happen.

Owners Blanca and Suni Hirani of 19 Soundview Drive, for example, originally applied for a demolition permit. They were approved for a new house, with a completely new design.

But during the 180-day period, they reimagined what they wanted. They updated the structure, while keeping the outside look. The result is impressive. And it earned the owners an HDC Preservation Award.

19 Soundview Drive – before (left) and after preservation.

Another Preservation Award went to 8 Mayflower Parkway. It too was a property whose 180-day waiting period was upheld. During that time, builder David Vynerib decided the structure was worth saving — and came up with a plan.

8 Mayflower Parkway, after renovation.

The Historic District Commission pays particular attention to the street-facing part of a property. When Michael and Kim Ronemus wanted to renovate 113 Cross Highway — once a gas station, house and outbuildings just west of North Avenue — the HDC helped them retain the exterior, while adding a modern extension in back.

Braun and Springer know the public is often confused when they see a “historic plaque” on a house, and assume that’s an official designation.

It’s not. Those markers are provided by the Westport Museum for History & Culture (for a fee). The program is separate from the Historic District Commission.

The HDC’s work extends to commercial properties. One recent example: work being done on the former Remarkable Book Shop/Talbots/Local to Market building, on Main Street at Parker Harding Plaza.

The HDC also oversees Westport’s 7 Local Historic Districts. They range from 4 properties on Morningside Drive South (formerly owned by artists Walter and Naiad Einsel) to about 40 homes on and around Kings Highway North.

The other Local Historic Districts are Evergreen Avenue, Gorham Avenue, Jesup Road, Lincoln Street/Riverside Avenue, and Violet Lane.

(Photo/Morley Boyd)

The HDC website says:

Local historic designation assists in the retention and enhancement of property values by providing a stable market in which to invest. It creates community pride, fosters neighborhood stabilization and enhances the appearance and authentic character of a designated area.

Building materials and natural resources expended in original construction retain their usefulness and rehabilitation itself uses less energy and raw materials than new construction. Restoration conserves energy and materials while reinforcing already environmentally sustainable neighborhoods.

Two-thirds of the owners in an area must approve a vote to become a Local Historic District. That designation offers a degree of protection for exterior (street-facing) alterations.

However, it’s not something all owners want. A recent proposal to add Sniffen Road, off Clinton Avenue, to the list went nowhere. A number of homeowners felt the designation would prohibit them from selling their houses to developers, as teardowns.

Braun notes, “There are rules for everything in town. No matter how old or new your property is, you can’t just start adding on without a permit.

“The HDC has an extensive review process, but we’re no more restrictive than other rules. We realize people want to do work on their property. We are always happy to help. We even schedule pre-application and special meetings, outside of our monthly ones.”

(To learn more about the Historic District Commission, click here.)

(“06880” explains Westport, to newcomers and old-timers alike. If you appreciate our work, please support us with a donation. Click here — and thank you!)

3 responses to “Tear Down That House! Inside Westport’s Historic District Commission

  1. I didn’t know the HDC was volunteer, and If just one historic structure is saved, their laudable efforts are worth it. However, I’ve noticed quite a few “tear-ups”, ie; buy old property, build new “additions” next to, above, and in one case below (!) the structure, so that the end result looks like every other new white-siding-black-window $2.5M, um, “New Construction!”, without any resemblance to the original, now mostly internally removed, house. No permit required for expensive demo, no pesky HDC (and presumably expensive to the developer) 6-mos waiting period? Is this a legit loophole?

  2. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

    The problem is self absorption and sanctimony. Westport lost out to “the developers” years ago. It was never a fair fight.

  3. Carl Addison Swanson, Wrecker, '66.

    The problem is the money. Too many hands in the cookie jar and as Patty Hearst once said: “Everyday is Christmas.:

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