Residents pan proposed historic district plan

Wilton residents Kelly Morron and Helen Olson’s hope of getting Wilton’s Bald Hill area designated a local historic district is receiving pushback from many residents in the neighborhood. A historic district is a defined area of historically or architecturally significant structures to visually represent a community’s heritage.

The limits of the proposed district — which would include more than 60 homes — would be:

  • Ridgefield Road: 704 Ridgefield Road to 974 Ridgefield Road on the east side, 715 Ridgefield Road to 165 Scarlet Oak Drive on the west side.

  • Millstone Road: 24 to 48-52 Millstone Road on the north side and 3 to 47 Millstone Road on the south side. This which would include 24 Millstone Road, which contains the old Bald Hill schoolhouse.

In an interview with The Bulletin, Morron claimed that “many [people] are enthusiastically in favor” of the idea of a Bald Hill historic district and “some are not.”

Richard Bondy, of 719 Ridgefield Road, said that statement is false. The truth, he said, is that “many are adamantly opposed and some are not.”

According to Bondy, more than 30 neighbors are opposed to the idea, including him and his wife, Margaret.

The Bondys expressed their opposition to the historic district in a Jan. 9 letter addressed to Historic District and Historic Property Commission Chair Allison Sanders and requested that “the commission consider the sentiments of the neighborhood, terminate the study group immediately and abandon the proposal.”

After Morron and Olson held two informational meetings with neighbors to discuss the idea of a historic district, Bondy said, he sent a letter to “everybody in the neighborhood” — including Morron and Olson — describing “the situation as presented at the neighborhood meetings.”

Several neighbors, including Bondy, attended and expressed their concerns about the historic district proposal at the Historic District and Historic Property Commission’s Jan. 3 meeting.

Bondy said the commission seemed “shocked” by the turnout.

“Not one person at the meeting was there in favor of the idea,” he said.

Three days later, Bondy said, “I made a mass mailing with this letter on Jan. 8 to all 68 houses in the proposed historic district, asking them to sign and return to me if opposed.”

Within several weeks, Bondy said, he received 35 responses and one abstention.

“That’s 51.5% of the 68 homes in the proposed historic district,” he said. “Opposition is throughout the area.”

Bondy said he received letters of opposition from six homeowners with Ridgefield Road addresses in the 900s, five from homeowners in the 800s, 13 from residents in the 700s, two Ruscoe Road residents, one Wilton Woods homeowner and another from Scarlet Oak Drive.

Bondy presented the letters to the Historic District and Historic Property Commission during its Feb. 7 meeting.

‘Kiss of death’

Bondy said one reason why he and neighbors oppose the idea of historic district designation is the real estate market.

He pointed out that the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2011 study on historic districts and property values in the Connecticut — which found no evidence that being in a local historic district reduces property values — was not conducted in Wilton.

“The residential real estate market in Wilton is terrible,” said Bondy, noting that Wilton’s real estate is not the same as the markets in the towns in which the study was conducted, which were Milford, Canton, Windsor, and Norwich.

Bondy said some houses in the area are up for sale and “the last thing a seller needs is to be saddled with the possibility of a historic district.”

“Anyone trying to sell house is burdened by the rumor of a proposed historic district,” said Bondy, who was told by local real estate agents that historic district designation is “the kiss of death.”

Regulations and restrictions

Added restrictions and regulations placed on properties within a historic district are another reason Bald Hill area residents are opposed to the idea.

While paint color, routine maintenance, and interior changes to buildings within historic districts are allowed without the approval of a historic commission, they may rule on whether or not new construction is appropriate. That doesn’t mean all new construction must be historic in design or appearance, according to state guidelines.

Prior to making exterior alterations visible from a public street property owners of properties within historic districts are required submit an application for a certificate of appropriateness to their local historic commission.

Bondy said getting a certificate of appropriateness would “add time and expense for homeowners seeking to improve their properties.”

“The [certificate] is a design review process,” Sanders explained to The Bulletin. “The commission works to protect and preserve the unique visual character of the neighborhood by reviewing proposed design plans and ensuring that they are in keeping with the character and style of the building/neighborhood.”

In her experience, Sanders said, the certificate of appropriateness process has been “collaborative in nature, with the commission acting as much as a resource as design reviewer.

“The commission does not require museum-quality detailing, or a design that would pass muster in Colonial Williamsburg.”

It just needs to “blend in with the building and the neighborhood,” she said, and “the commission shall take action on each application within 65 days of receipt.”

Without the certificate of appropriateness, no building permit for construction or alteration and no demolition permit can be issued. All buildings and structures within a historic district — regardless of age or condition — are subject to review of any exterior work by their local historic commission.

Mixed feelings

Jessica Skipper, of 752 Ridgefield Road, said she’s in favor of the idea of a historic district because she thinks it’s “important to preserve historical structures and the flavor of the original area,” but she also recognizes that “some may feel it is a hardship to have to comply with more regulations.”

A Bald Hill resident of more than 15 years who asked to remain anonymous said the “historic homes and their preservation” are what attracted her to the area.

Before Wilton, she lived in historic areas in other states. When selling her home in the Corn Hill section of Rochester, N.Y., the historic district aspect was “used by real estate brokers as a selling point to prospective buyers,” she said, “and there was no negative impact to the sale price.”

However, she is “still undecided about Bald Hill becoming an historic district.”

“It would be beneficial to have a real estate broker experienced in this matter give a presentation at the next meeting and respond to questions from meeting attendees.”

Designation process

Establishing historic district designation can take a year or two, and the process begins with the appointment of a study committee by the Board of Selectmen. The committee would be in touch with property owners and evaluate the historical and architectural significance of properties being considered.

The committee must then submit a report and recommendations to Planning and Zoning and the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism, which then have 65 days to return comments.

The study committee would then send written notices to property owners and post two legal notices before holding a public hearing. Within 65 days of the public hearing, the committee must submit a final report and recommendations.

The town clerk then has 65 days to authorize and issue ballots to all property owners in the proposed district, who then vote to either support or oppose designation. The establishment of a historic district requires a two-thirds in-favor vote.

Bondy said he and neighbors who oppose the idea “want to demonstrate a high level of opposition” and plan to attend upcoming historic commission meetings.

“We’ll have people at the meetings on a rotating basis. We will go to every single one of these meetings,” he said.

The Historic District and Historic Property Commission’s next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, March 7, at 7:30 p.m. in Room A of the town hall annex.