WESTPORT — The Historic District Commission unanimously voted to approve a retroactive partial demolition permit for the property at 1 Wilton Road in a meeting that pitted modernist architects against town historic preservationists.

“I understand how we got to where we are today,” Lucien Vita, the owner of the historic building, said at a Tuesday meeting of the commission. “Why by one person’s evaluation it can seem like it’s not a demolition, but once it’s actually done in the field, by another party’s estimation, it would be.”

Vita bought 1 Wilton Road in 2013 and planned to move his architecture firm, Vita Design Group, to the location. As Vita described in his presentation to the Historic District Commission Tuesday, his plans were delayed when developers from the Save the Children property offered to purchase his building and move it to their site in order to make room for a larger turn lane in one of the town’s busiest intersections.

The Save the Children plan fell through, however, as did a deal with the town, Vita said, so he received building permits in August to move forward with property renovations.

Vita’s construction at 1 Wilton Road sparked debate over whether his work on the property should be classified as a demolition.

Per town demolition ordinance, demolition is defined as destruction of 50 percent of an original structure. If a property change is deemed demolition, an automatic demolition delay period is enacted and the property owners must appear before the HDC to waive the delay period.

The Building Department did not originally consider Vita’s plans for 1 Wilton Road a demolition and thus said he would not have to appear before the HDC to move forward with renovations at his property.

Once construction began on the property in mid-October, town historic preservation activists thought differently and brought the issues to the town attorney, who, in conjunction with representatives from the HDC, overruled the Building Department’s assessment that the property’s changes did not constitute demolition.

“I’m asking for a waiver on the 180-day delay period for this retroactive partial demolition application,” Vita told the HDC, which granted the request in a 5-0 vote.

“We do feel we have worked diligently to maintain the spirit of the design of this building and the scale of this building,” Vita said in explaining his plans for the property. “We just want to freshen it up, give it a little more architectural presence and soundness in design and bolster it structurally so it can live another 100 or 200 years instead of seeming like another tear-down for the next buyer down the road.”

HDC members pointed to the failure of the town’s definition of demolition in recommending to the building official the balance of Vita’s delay period for a retroactive partial demolition permit be waived.

“I think it’s an area where the town needs to come to a better understanding of what constitutes the threshold of where work becomes a demolition,” HDC Chairman Randy Henkels said. “I think we have to get to it before, and I think it’s going to require a coordination between the Building Department and Planning and Zoning so everyone’s in agreement about what constitutes the definition of demolition.”

“I feel like it was a good object lesson to point out the fact that the demolition delay ordinance, through no fault of your own obviously, you can drive a truck through it,” said Morley Boyd, who submitted a complaint to the Planning and Zoning Department regarding the extent of construction at the Wilton Road property

Several residents spoke in favor of Vita’s designs for the Wilton Road property.

“He basically did an amazing job preserving the spirit of the federal architectural style in the two-story part of the structure and very thoughtfully evolved it so that it both preserves the past and works for today,” Indre Johnson said. “I think we should let him go forward because I think there are too many examples of people with a sort of nostalgic attachment to the past stopping people from making progress with their lives, and I think it would be horribly unfair to Lucien’s business to do this.”

svaughan@hearstmedia

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