Demolition Delay Ordinances
A demolition delay ordinance is a tool that preservationists and municipalities can use to protect their communities historically and architecturally significant resources. The State of Connecticut has enabling legislation which allows towns to impose a waiting period (recently amended to not more than 180 days) before granting a demolition permit. This waiting period would allow interested parties to explore alternatives to demolition and provide "a window of opportunity for preservation".
An effective ordinance will insure that historic buildings continue to serve important and productive roles in our communities and will not limit or prevent development. Ordinances should clearly outline what buildings are covered by the delay, have a provision to lift the delay if building is not significant, provide for stiff penalities if the ordinance is violated and most important an organization/individual in the community willing to work on finding a viable alternative.
In reviewing demolition delay ordinances throughout Connecticut, the Trust found there great variety from town to town. There is no uniform language, procedures or definitions. The Connecticut Trust has drafted model Demolition Delay Ordinance for municipalities to use to either update existing ordinances or to institute a new one. A model Demolition Delay Ordinance is found as a file at the bottom of the page.
Current Flaws in the System
CT Circuit Rider Greg Farmer notes that Connecticut preservationists have had great success in protecting historically and architecturally significant buildings through the National Register of Historic Places, local historic districts, demolition delay ordinances and preservation restrictions. In fact, Connecticut has some of the strongest safeguards in the nation. Under the Connecticut Environmental Protection Act (C.G.S. Chapter 439, Section 22a-19a), any individual or other entity can file suit in Superior Court to challenge the “unreasonable destruction of historic structures and landmarks” including any privately-owned building or structure that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, either individually or as part of a district.
Unfortunately, recent trends have exposed a flaw in the web of preservation ordinances statewide. Since Connecticut’s statutory definition of demolition is vague, the term is free to be interpreted for better or worse by local building officials and individual property owners. The results of “non-demolition” have been strange.
- In Higganum, the owners of an early 19th century Georgian style house on the Connecticut River wanted to build a new and larger house on the site to take advantage of the waterfront view, but local regulations prohibited new construction so close to the riverbank. At the suggestion of the local building official, the owners arranged to remove the front wall of the house (clapboards and trim), demolish the rest of the structure, pour a new foundation, build a larger building to suit their desires and then reapply the old face. They were assured by the building official that this process did not entail demolition, since the original façade was applied to a new structure in the same location.
- In Milford, the town government had purchased a1790 house on Gulf Pond in order to prevent its demolition as part of a subdivision plan. The town negotiated a 99-year preservation restriction on the property and then sold it at a reduced price to a new owner. Only three months later, the demolition crew arrived to “deconstruct” the house and rebuild it on the same parcel with a more advantageous orientation and view. Most of the house (and the related barns) wound up in a dumpster. The stone foundation was converted to a stone wall and the cellar hole was filled. But it wasn’t demolition, because a few of the key framing timbers and some of the architectural details were stored in a trailer on site for possible reuse. Although Milford has a strong demolition delay ordinance, it was not triggered since the mayor and building official maintain that dismantling for partial reconstruction is not demolition.
The Connecticut Building, Fire and Demolition Codes (Chapter 451, Sec. 29-402) require the use of a registered demolition contractor for all demolitions except for a) disassembling, transporting or reconstructing historic buildings, b) the demolition of farm buildings, c) the renovation, alteration or reconstruction of a single-family residence, or d) the demolition of a single-family residence or outbuilding less than thirty feet high by the property owner.
The exemption from using a registered demolition contractor has caused some local building officials and property owners to conclude that the specified actions do not constitute demolition. With no statewide definition to fall back on, the discretionary judgment of the local building official has become a critical factor in determining whether the integrity of an historic building will be preserved.
To address this concern, the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation has been developing a model Demolition Delay ordinance for consideration by individual communities. In addition, the Connecticut Trust is working with the General Assembly and with preservation organizations throughout the state to adopt a standard definition of demolition as part of the 2008 legislative agenda.
The proposed definition of demolition is summarized below:
DEMOLITION – The intentional act of substantially pulling down, destroying, dismantling, defacing, removing or razing a building or structure, or commencing the work of a total, substantial, or partial destruction with the intent of completing the same; also the act or process of delaying or withholding maintenance of a building or structure in such a way as to cause or allow significant damage to occur which may result in a pubic hazard or nuisance.
The model demolition delay ordinance provides a more detailed description of demolition in order to clarify any possible conflict with the registration requirements of the state building code. Under demolition delay, the definition of demolition shall include:
Removal of a roof for the purpose of: raising the overall height of a roof; rebuilding the roof to a different pitch; or adding another story to a building.
Removal of one or more exterior wall(s) or partition(s) of a building.
Gutting of a building’s interior to the point where exterior features (windows, doors, etc.) are impacted.
Removal of more than 25% of a structure’s overall gross square footage as determined by the Department of Inspectional Services.
The lifting and relocating of a building on its existing site or to another site.
The delay or withholding of maintenance on a building or structure in such a way as to cause or allow a significant loss of architectural integrity or structural stability.
These two initiatives – the push for a statewide definition of demolition and the circulation of a model demolition delay ordinance – are both in the early stages of public debate and are still subject to change. However, once adopted, they will help to clarify issues throughout the state and support the efforts of Connecticut’s many local preservation organizations.
Also listed below is relevant State of Connecticut enabling legislation, particulary Public Act No. 07-26, an Act Concerning the Demolition of Buildings