After illegal demolition, Norwalk seeks grant to update historic inventory

NORWALK — The Historical Commission plans to revamp Norwalk’s Historic Resources Inventory as the city seeks to revise its demolition ordinance in the wake of the oldest home being illegally destroyed.

Michelle Woods Matthews, a spokesperson for the city, said the Norwalk legal department "continues to explore all options" that could penalize Cesar Diaz and Kembery Mora, the homeowners accused of the Oct. 29 illegal demolition during what was supposed to be a renovation project of 21 Willow St.

The Thomas Hyatt House, constructed in 1677, was recognized as Norwalk’s oldest home prior to its illegal demolition in late October. Despite the city’s chief building official intervening during the demolition, the home could not be saved.

In mid-November, the Common Council’s Ordinance Committee began discussing changing the city’s demolition delay ordinance to prevent a similar situation from occurring again.

During the Historical Commission’s meeting last week, members discussed updating and improving the city’s Historic Resources Inventory, a list of Norwalk’s historically significant buildings.

“The Redevelopment Agency was proposing to use some of their funds to hire an outside consultant to come and do an inventory,” Council member Tom Livingston said during the meeting. “That inventory would be used in essence to replace the 50-year threshold and make it a lot easier to administer the delay ordinance. We would just look at what properties are on that inventory. Obviously, we would have to keep it up to date.”

The Historical Commission endorsed the move to seek a grant from the state to catalogue each Norwalk property, which may take years, according to Tod Bryant, founder and president of the Norwalk Preservation Trust.

“They want to give this money out. That’s the reason it’s not a matching grant,” Bryant said. “It takes a long time to do these things, about a year to do 150 to 200 buildings, because the way the state requires it to be done. The state has $20,000 grants, which are non-matching, $20,000 worth of free money for these inventories specifically.”

Municipalities often abide by the industry standard of preserving buildings 50 years or older as it is the threshold for admission to the National Register of Historic Places, Bryant said.

“What confuses people is the number, 50 years old and older, but the real issue is significance more than age,” Bryant said. “Clearly every building that’s 50 years old does not qualify for the National Register, nor would every building that’s 50 years old be worthy of a demo delay. It’s all about significance, but you have to have a place to start, and that’s as good as any and its pretty much the nationally recognized threshold.”

The National Register intended the 50-year mark to be a “moving target,” and there will be homes 50 years or older that are worth preservation, Bryant said.

Norwalk can also seek the $20,000 grant multiple times, ensuring all portions of the city are catalogued, Bryant said.

“You can go back as many times as you want to. You can do it in 200 building chunks and just keep going,” Bryant said. “The way it usually works is to get approved for the grant, send out a request for proposals to whatever list of people, and then this document requires a historic resource inventory form for each building and a 20-page narrative about the history of the area.”

The last time a full inventory of historic buildings in Norwalk was done was 1979, according to the Norwalk Preservation Trust.

The inventory, conducted from 1976-79, is a summary of 644 historic buildings, completed with a state grant for the Redevelopment Agency and Historical Commission, according to the Trust. Another phase of inventorying began in 2011, covering 336 structures in the area between Route 1, Interstate 95, the Route 7 Connector and East Avenue.

A historic inventory has no bearing on what becomes of the building, but provides more information on the structure's history and significance, according to the Trust. 

Abigail Brone can be reached at abigail.brone@hearstmediact.com.