Historic preservation focus of study

There are about 500 18th and 19th-Century houses in Wilton, according to an architectural survey, but a number have been proposed for demolition recently causing considerable public interest.

This has prompted the Wilton League of Women Voters to consider undertaking a study on the preservation of historic buildings and what can or cannot, should or should not be done in Wilton.

“Usually a league study starts with a question that people want answered,” Gini Benin, a member of both the league and Wilton Historical Society, told The Bulletin on Monday. “Issues have arisen and they feel more clarity is needed.

“In this case, it’s the preservation of buildings specifically and what can a town do, what is our town doing, what are other towns doing, what are the laws? All those things people need to know before they can go forward.”

The league study would involve gathering the facts, arriving at a consensus, and putting forth “a series of actions that could be taken to improve, alter, or negate what is presently occurring,” she said.

Benin volunteered to co-chair the study — another co-chair is being sought — and is looking for volunteers to work with her. She is hopeful the study could be wrapped up by December. Anyone interested in working on the study — league membership is not required — may email her at vbenin@optonline.net.

Some of the questions that may be considered are:

  • State laws on protections and tax abatements;

  • Successful efforts in other Connecticut towns;

  • How can homeowners be better informed about the meaning of historic districts;

  • How do historic homes affect property value;

  • Are there tax abatement ordinances in Wilton regarding historic districts;

  • How are the town’s building department, town planner, and the conservation commission involved in preservation;

  • Is there a need for a town wide architectural advisory committee?

The league took the first step to investigating this issue on Jan. 28, when it heard Wilton Historical Society Executive Director Leslie Nolan discuss how the society has given new life to the 18 historic buildings for which it is responsible.

Those buildings, which range from homes to a rail station, general stores, barns, a corn crib and outhouses, are spread among three campuses. With the exception of Lambert House, all were donated to the society, which had financial help from the state in moving many of them. The society does not have room to take any more.

Except for those at the society’s museum complex, most are rented for commercial purposes, and those rents help pay for maintenance, although the society pays about $50,000 a year in property taxes, Nolan said.

The buildings have been given new life through the concept of adaptive use, and many older buildings in town have similarly benefited through an the ordinance put in place in Wilton in the 1970s.

The genesis was Split Rock, at that time a home at the base of Scribner Hill Road that was being partially used as an antiques shop. There were many antiques shops along Route 7 back in the 70s.

The adaptive use ordinance, which was somewhat controversial, was eventually passed as a means of preserving residential character along Route 7, which is zoned R-2A from the high school north to Four Seasons Racquet Club.

“That’s what prevents gas stations and McDonald’s from being there,” architect Rob Sanders said at the meeting.

The ordinance is focused on leveraging commercial potential to preserve [historic] buildings along Route 7.

“Without this ordinance we would have a very different Route 7 corridor,” he said.

Wilton also has a historic district commission overseeing five historic districts in town, but restrictions cover only a building’s external appearance from a “legal right of way.” It does not restrict interior renovations or even prevent a home from being torn down.

“People have very strong opinions” about historic preservation, Benin said, but “all those things need to be massaged [and] investigated, so that at least everybody that has an interest has facts upon which to go forward.”

Her plan is to reach out to league members, and anyone else who expresses an interest in participating, and invite them to a meeting. If they cannot make the meeting — the date has not yet been set — she invites anyone interested to email her and tell her what aspects of the study they would like to work on. She would like to see work begin in the next month or so.

“I feel it’s important because everybody in town is talking about it,” she said. “Some league studies have effected change, some have informed the public in ways they didn’t previously have information.” This study, she said, “will be a service to the town and a service to the historical society.”