The Historic District Commission's decision to delay demolition of two Post Road West houses has aggravated neighbors, but commissioners said they have a responsibility to see that all options are considered -- including preservation -- regarding the future of the long-deteriorating properties.
Earlier this month, the newly formed Blight Prevention Board took its first action by proclaiming four buildings on Post Road West, just across the Saugatuck River bridge from downtown, to be blighted. The owner of the properties -- Cross Street LLC -- had already applied for a permit to demolish the four structures, but the commission still had to grant approval before demolition could begin.
While it waived the 180-day waiting period for two of the buildings that can now be razed immediately, the commission last week decided to stay demolition of the two older structures pending a closer look.
"I think we're going to do what we can to try to convince them to seek alternatives," said Francis Henkels, Historic District Commission chairman, who hopes to see the two buildings restored.
According to Carol Leahy, staff administrator for the commission, the house at 57 Post Road West, at the intersection of Cross Street, was built around 1825, while the house at 63 Post Road West was built around 1850.
"This just gives the town an opportunity to present possible alternatives," she said. Among these is an offer to have an architectural historian from the state examine and investigate the property, and make recommendations on restoration possibilities.
Leahy said that after the 180-day waiting period expires, "Because it is not a regulated property ... it is the owner's choice whether or not to demolish it," she said.
"This house should never have been let go to be the way it was," Henkels said. "This is where we have some power. We expect to pursue as persuasive an argument as we can make to try to restore the house and save it."
Henkels noted that the older house at 57 Post Road West is virtually a twin of a fully restored house at 35 Post Road West, and should ideally be brought back to the same condition. He said the restoration would not only enhance the western gateway to downtown, but could enhance the developer's reputation in town.
Stephen Grathwohl, principal of Westport Property Management, LLC, who represented the property owner at the Blight Prevention Board's meeting, said the owner would not put any money into restoration. In fact, he said the owner has let the property deteriorate because he had no money to develop it owing to the poor economy.
Grathwohl did not return calls regarding the historic panel's actions, nor has the commission heard a response on the matter.
Representative Town Meeting member Louis Mall, District 2, who was instrumental in the formation of the Blight Prevention Board, said the historic commission should not further delay the demolition.
Mall said air and water quality could be adversely affected by lead paint that's been allowed to chip, as well as mold and possible asbestos, in the buildings. "I think HDC is mishandling this because it is a public health and safety issue."
When it rains and snows, runoff from the property goes downhill into the Saugatuck River a block away, he said.
"I question what HDC has done about these houses for the last 20 years," he said, noting that he had brought Henkels to the properties in the fall to see them.
"I did walk the property with Lou Mall," Henkels said, but that information didn't empower his commission to act.
"Our jurisdiction isn't really effective until there is an action by the owner," he said. "We don't have the authorization to approach an owner in advance of them -- in this particular case, filing for a demolition waiver."
"It's a tough situation," Henkels said. "These owners have just neglected these properties for so long."
"I think it's important to underscore that they recognized that these buildings were clearly blighted," Leahy said of the historic commission.
She said the panel is waiting to hear if the owner will allow a state architectural expert to visit, for which there would be no cost. She said the commission can decide at its next meeting, should the owner express no interest or grant no permission, to waive the remainder of the 180-day period and allow immediate demolition.
"It's a flexible situation," Henkels said. "I have no idea what this landowner's interest is in developing that property, but I think we've seen other cases where a historic property can be a centerpiece to a new construction," he said, citing the house that was renovated into the downtown Spotted Horse Tavern.
But many neighbors feel they've waited long enough and that the four Post Road West buildings are beyond redemption.
"These houses on the Post Road that lead into downtown Westport are a disgrace and an embarrassment to the town and to our neighborhood," Mall said. "It's worse than Detroit."
"HDC, along with the owner, Cross Street, LLC, should be ashamed to have let this go on for 14 years and have done nothing," he said. "Six more months of blight in our neighborhood is 180 days too many."