Westport's affluence has not inoculated it from the occasional case of deteriorating or dilapidated properties, and complaints about some of those properties have prompted town officials to draft an anti-blight proposal.
The Representative Town Meeting plans to act on the proposed ordinance this fall. It would allow the town to identify blighted properties and fine the owners whose property conditions are found to violate the standards defined in the ordinance.
Because the ordinance could lead to razing some structure, some of which might be historic, if they pose a health or safety hazard, members of the town's Historic District Commission discussed the proposal at their August meeting. They raised several concerns, which they plan to bring up at a meeting of the RTM's Planning and Zoning Subcommittee at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 29 in Town Hall.
The HDC members want to make sure the proposed ordinance would not be at odds with their mission to preserve historic structures.
Grayson Braun expressed concern that the anti-blight ordinance would not foster preservation. She also objects to what she called "a taking of property" and wondered whether the process would side step the 180-day demolition delay now in place locally.
"It's likely that blight is going to happen to older structures. That puts it in an area of concern for us. We don't want the blight ordinance to lead to significant historic structures being taken down. They can be restored, they can be renovated, they can be salvaged," said Betsy Wacker, vice chairwoman of the HDC. Even buildings deemed dangerous to enter, with some work, can still be salvaged, she said.
Wacker said she understands that people tire of looking at properties in rough shape, especially those whose property values are affected, "but we don't want the remedy to be a reaction of simply taking it down."
But Louis Mall, an RTM member from District 2, said their concerns are unfounded. The blight process would not necessarily lead to tearing down a structure, and if a property had deteriorated to an unsafe level, Mall said "it would go through the normal demolition process," which would include the demolition delay overseen by the HDC.
Mall said the town would focus on getting a targeted property repaired, and other town agencies would be informed when an investigation determined that a blight violation exists. Notice of a violation would go to the last known address of each owner/occupant as well as the "Building Official, the Director of the Department of Human Services, the Director of the Health District, the Director of the Planning & Zoning Department, the Historic District Commission Staff, the Chief of Police, and the Chief of the Fire Department," according to the proposal.
"We're trying to protect neighborhoods from dilapidated properties ... The people on the RTM P&Z Committee and the RTM ordinance committee were very diligent and very constructive and helpful and careful in trying to craft an ordinance that would work and that is fair, and I think we've done that," Mall said. He said they reviewed ordinances in surrounding communities, including Fairfield, before drafting the Westport proposal.
James Gilleran, Fairfield's building official who also serves as that town's blight prevention officer and the enforcement officer for the town's HDC, said there are no outstanding blight fines on any properties in Fairfield right now. If there was a historic structure in danger of being condemned or razed, he said his office would notify the Fairfield Historical Society and the Historic District Commission.
"The blight process doesn't necessarily mean tearing it down ... If it's a matter of public safety it's condemnation. That's something different (from blight)," Gilleran said, pointing to the five houses the town paid to tear down on Fairfield Beach Road in the months after Superstorm Sandy severely damaged them.
Mall said the proposed Westport ordinance was prompted by complaints about dilapidated properties on Post Road West between Lincoln and Cross streets, and on Partrick Road, the latter of which was recently razed. Complains have also been made against a property on Wake Robin Road that he said has become an eyesore.
Mall said the ordinance also aims to prevent "demolition by neglect,\" which he said some developers have done. Referring to the properties on Post Road West he said, "Nothing's been done for 13 years. Do we have to live with it for another 13 years?"
He mentioned architect Peter Cadoux's building near the neglected buildings on Post Road West, which he said was built about the same time. "You can look at what happens when somebody does take care of a building and how beautiful it is and then you see when somebody's agenda is totally different and (the property) is allowed to deteriorate into blight," he said.
"When you can't sell your home because somebody else's property across the street has been abandoned for 19 years and he lives in Penthouse B in New York City, something's wrong and it shouldn't be tolerated," Mall said.
Wacker said the HDC knows there is a difference between those property owners who are financially stressed and cannot afford repairs and those who are allowing demolition by neglect, and she wants to make sure the ordinance would differentiate between the two. "We don't want the ordinance to ultimately force the demolition because someone who's financially stressed simply can't take care of the property and can't afford the penalties that they're proposing," Wacker said.
At the Aug. 29 meeting, Wacker will recommend that a blight officer, should the town hire one, be accompanied by an HDC member when inspecting a structure 50 years or older to follow up on a blight complaint.
"We always have to take the long view about our cultural resources. This is part of our heritage," she said.
Mall said the proposal will go back to the RTM P&Z Subcommittee once more and is expected to an agenda item for the full RTM's Sept. 3 meeting.