The Connecticut Environmental Protection Act, or CEPA, allows anyone to sue to prevent “the unreasonable destruction of historic structures and landmarks of the state,” defined as buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. See Conn. Gen. Stat. §§ 22a-15 to 22a-19b. According to the statue, private parties may file suit to prevent the “unreasonable destruction” of historic buildings. Most often, it is the state agency known as the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) that is involved in activating the CEPA, with the help of the State Attorney General.
We have played a leading role in several CEPA cases, including hiring attorneys, supporting the Attorney General’s Office, and testifying in court. In the last few years, the organization was a plaintiff in two CEPA lawsuits – one involving commercial buildings on Bank Street in New London, and another involving an 18th century home in Milford.
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Influence State and Private Action
Projects Subject to CEPA
The CEPA only applies to buildings that are listed on or under consideration for the National Register. It’s sometimes possible to get a National Register nomination through in time to save a building, but such cases are rare. Furthermore, last-minute designations are usually seen by would-be developers as hostile acts, making them less willing to compromise. It is better to make sure that everything you care about is listed before the threats appear. Local historical and preservation organizations, and even individuals, can sponsor a nomination.
A Bargaining Chip
But the CEPA may provide leverage that can be used to obtain concessions to protect an area’s historic character: better architectural or landscape design, thorough documentation of the building before it is torn down, salvage of important parts, or an offer to allow the building to be moved to another site, maybe even with some of the cost of demolition thrown in for an incentive.
State Agency Obligations
A related law, the Connecticut Environmental Policy Act, has a complementary function: It requires that State-funded projects be reviewed by the SHPO to evaluate effects on historic resources and then to evaluate the degree of any effects. In this function, it is similar to the National Environmental Policy Act for federal projects.
In 2017, the SHPO reviewed about 2,500 state- or federally-funded or permitted projects for environmental compliance, finding three-quarters of them to involve “no historic properties affected.” If there are significant impacts anticipated, however, then the project sponsor must conduct an environmental impact assessment or study. This assessment details the existing conditions of the project location, presents a consideration of alternatives to achieve the project goals, and analyzes potential impacts to the environment by the proposed alternatives. The results are shared with other agencies and the public for review and comment. The project sponsor must review and respond to all comments in a final document called the Record of Decision. The State Office of Policy and Management provides a final review and determines whether or not the environmental documentation is adequate and the project may go forward.
For example, the City of Shelton received money from the State to promote development along its historic industrial canal. The original plan included a significant amount of historic building loss. Through intense negotiations, SHPO and the City worked out a plan that includes far less loss, as well as a National Register nomination for the remainder of the historic resources. In addition, Shelton will become a Certified Local Government, offer tax abatements for improving blighted properties, adopt a demolition delay ordinance, and allow SHPO to review designs for any new construction.