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Waiting period would protect Stonington’s historic assets

April 19, 2019 GMT

Like an itinerant preacher wielding a well-worn bookmarked Bible, Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons proudly points to his dog-eared copy of his town’s Plan of Conservation and Development, the recommendations his administration has pursued highlighted.

Yet it has taken much prodding to get Simmons to finally consider implementing a straight-forward and sensible recommendation in the 2015 report. In fact, it was in the 2004 version as well.

“Adopting a demolition delay ordinance to provide a waiting period (such as 90 days) before a historic structure is demolished,” reads the recommendation.

Day Columnist David Collins, who has crusaded for preservation of the region’s historic architecture, has noted that only Stonington, among our shoreline communities, lacks an ordinance to delay demolition and give preservationists a chance to make the case why a building should be spared.

In recent columns he has pointed with alarm to the demolition of buildings in Mystic, including an 1840 building on Haley Street that was listed as a contributing structure to the Mystic Bridge Historic District.

In a meeting with the editorial board, Simmons defended his record on protecting historic assets in his town, saying that when he judges a building to have historic value, he will intervene to save it. But therein lies the problem. It shouldn’t be up to one elected official to make that decision.

Worse yet, the town provides the illusion of protecting its historic assets. Its “Demolition Procedures” state, “Any permit taken out in the historical district requires that a waiting period of 90 days is required.”

But the requirement is not codified in ordinance and therefore unenforceable.

Simmons’ reluctance to see such an ordinance passed is based on his concern that it could lead to prolonged legal fights, blocking development possibilities, all to save a building that the first selectman may consider simply old, not historic.

That can happen, but better to tip the scales toward protecting historic properties.

Seemingly with great reluctance, Simmons has placed a waiting-period ordinance on the agenda for the June 17 meeting of the Plan of Conservation & Development Implementation Committee. He chairs the committee and won’t say whether he will back the ordinance. If approved, it would then go the Board of Selectmen, which would decide whether to forward it to a town meeting.

Surrender a bit of power, Mr. Simmons, and back the ordinance.