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Monday, September 15, 2014

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Historic district leader resents RTMer's budget-cut 'wake-up call'

Published 2:51 pm, Wednesday, May 7, 2014
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An attempt to cut the Historic District Commission's budget was planned as a "wake-up call," according to Louis Mall, the Representative Town Meeting member who unsuccessfully tried to reduce the allocation by more than half during the legislative body's budget deliberations earlier this week.

"I was trying to make a point, and my point was this -- the Historic District Commission has no checks and balances and they are not held accountable by anyone," said Mall, a District 2 member. "They are an appointed board and they don't answer to the Westport electorate."

In large part, Mall's unhappiness centers on the HDC's protection of some blighted properties on Post Road West.

Mall, who lives the near the properties, was instrumental in the creation of the town's Blight Prevention Board last year. Its first act was to designate as blighted five Post Road West structures, near Cross Street, but the statute allowed the HDC to delay demolition for up to 180 days in order to examine whether the properties had historic significance and, in the case of two in particular, could be restored.

While Mall said he knew his budget-cut proposal, which he later withdrew, did not really have any chance of moving forward Monday, it still was an unpleasant surprise to Francis Henkels, the Historic District Commission chairman.

"At the end of the day we weren't going to cut that money out there," Mall said. "I knew it. I had no intention of that. I wanted to give them a wake-up call."

"I just found it rather striking to hear the comments made last night," Henkels said Tuesday. "I think they come from a rather limited sector of the public in the town of Westport ... In most cases we are strongly supported by the citizens of Westport."

Regarding the alleged lack of accountability by the historic panel, Henkels said, "This is certainly not our perspective on things. I would take strong exception to that. We are very accountable to the first selectman," he said.

He also said the commission works with bare-bones funding, with most of its $67,667 budget going toward the salary of Carol Leahy, the HDC staff administrator.

Leahy would not comment on Mall's proposal, but Henkels credited her with finding outside sources of funding for many of the HDC projects.

"We virtually have no funding to do what we do," Henkels said. "Most of the funding for efforts that we take on on behalf of the town comes from outside sources."

Mall said his proposed cut of $38,200 mirrored the amount of a state grant the HDC chose not to apply for last year because, he said, board members described the application process as too "onerous."

"What I heard last night was a very selective and unbalanced perspective on what we do," Henkels said, noting that the HDC role in preserving the Kemper-Gunn House from demolition was unrecognized.

Mall noted his unhappiness with the HDC delaying demolition of the Post Road West properties after more than 14 years of neglect. He took umbrage with one HDC member asking him earlier this year what difference another six months of waiting would make while efforts to find a preservation alternative were sought.

"I found that pretty obnoxious, to say that to a Westport resident and a taxpayer who funds the person that they have," Mall said. "That was the point that I was trying to make, that you just don't act that way toward people."

"I did send them an email asking for an update (on those properties) and they didn't respond. It's like, what makes them think they have to respond to me or anyone? They don't answer to anyone."

"We make some difficult, sometimes controversial decisions and there's always somebody who's going to be on the other side of those decisions," Henkels said, discounting claims that the HDC is "biased or arbitrary or has a private agenda. "I think if you just look at our record, I think you'd find that that's not really the case."

"We don't have a lot of power to enforce preservation," he added. "We have a six-month delay to convince someone to preserve a historic property. Sometimes it doesn't work, but that doesn't mean the effort wasn't worthwhile."

Mall said a suggestion from RTM member John Suggs, District 5, that the RTM appoint a preservation committee to interact with the HDC is a positive idea that came from his budget-cut proposal.

"As far as I'm concerned, the more interest the better," Henkels said. "We are not, as was described last night, a closed organization with a private agenda. It couldn't be further from the truth."