Plan to extend Saugatuck bridge designation to more properties hotly debated
Heated debate over the campaign to save the Saugatuck River swing bridge erupted again at Tuesday’s Historic District Commission meeting over a proposal to expand a study of the span’s historic merits to include abutting properties on the east and west river banks.
The proposal to include state-owned neighboring properties in the Saugatuck River Swing Bridge Subcommittee’s study of designating the bridge a local historic landmark triggered arguments over the scope — and legality — of that effort between preservationists pressing for the broader study and several commission members.
HDC Chairman Francis Henkels underscored legal issues that could arise when petitioning that multiple properties be included in the designation as opposed to one parcel — the 132-year-old bridge itself.
The state Department of Transportation is conducting a study of the bridge after identifying operational and maintenance problems last fall. That study, expected to finished in the spring, could be used to determine whether the bridge can be repaired or should be replaced.
“A local historic property for designation applies to a single property and, in this case, the study subcommittee is coming to us to request that the single historic property be expanded to a district. If you include any more than one parcel of land in a designation, then it has to become a district as opposed to an individual property, so there’s a technical distinction, there are technical differences in the way the process works,” Henkels said.
Bob Weingarten, a board member and Saugatuck River Swing Bridge Subcommittee chairman, pointed out that when the National Register of Historic Places listed the swing bridge, “those two plots of land were not part of the application.”
Petitioner and preservationist Morley Boyd, however, told the commission why he believes the area abutting the bridge is a crucial component to the historic designation.
“As a preservationist, I always look at a historic resource in terms of not just its integrity, its workmanship, its materials, also its location and its setting,” Boyd said. “Location and setting, as you all know, are critical aspects of any historic resource in terms of gauging its importance — this one is on its original setting and that’s actually distinctive in the sense that this is now the nation’s, believed to be the nation’s, oldest bridge of its type. Many of these bridges have been moved from their setting or the setting has been compromised and so this one is very significant.”
Boyd showed a photo from 1993 of a two-lane temporary bridge that was built alongside the swing bridge while it was being renovated. He went on to note that a state Department of Transportation official said on Jan. 23 that, if a replacement bridge were built it would take the same path as the earlier temporary span. Boyd said he believes a replacement bridge would “likely be quite larger.”
Henkels retorted that the bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, adding, “It’s also a state-owned property and the local historic designation ultimately is subject to the veto of the owner of the property.” Further, Henkels said he does not believe the state would approve the local designation, noting, “There was a question raised by the first selectman to the director of the DOT asking his position on whether or not he would approve the designation of this bridge and he indicated he would not support that.”
Boyd fired back, saying, “The owner of the property has not been established,” while board member Edward Gerber interjected, “The chairman is speaking.” Henkels then concluded about ownership of the span: “I think it has been.”
Henkels also suggested that if the historic designation were expanded to a district it would present more complications and said that “a local historic district or property was never intended to apply to a state-owned property based on the fact that support for that designation comes from the owner.”
John Suggs, a Representative Town Meeting member from District 5, implored the board to let the subcommittee proceed with its study. “The RTM will be open to a historic district as opposed to a historic property, so therefore, I see there is absolutely no reason for this debate to continue, I see there is no reason for you to continue to obstruct this effort and I urge you to stop, to cease, stop doing us damage, allow the study to go forward, bring it back here and bring it back to the group that asked for it in the first place — the RTM,” he said.
Henkels denied the claim that the commission was obstructing the preservationists’ efforts.
“What I object to is the statement that we’re being obstructionists to the process of the preservation of the bridge, which I totally deny,” Henkels said. “Now, the only difference of opinion here is process and I think this is a misuse of the process of local historic designation. I think it’s a futile effort, but I now understand that the study is a valuable information-gathering process.”
RTM Planning and Zoning Committee Chairman Matthew Mandell said, “To cut them (Saugatuck River Swing Bridge Subcommittee) short from what they’re trying to do now doesn’t make any sense to me. So let’s have the study committee continue what it’s doing, not worry about outside political issues and finish off what’s right for this town.
“If you don’t do it, you’re selling this town short and I don’t think that’s right.” Mandell added. “The RTM gave you a charge: study the situation, study the bridge, if that includes both sides of the piece of the property then include them. Let the study committee do it,” he said.