The New Canaan Historical Society has extensive files that document houses, many of which are gone now, including by demolition, the head of the organization said Thursday.
Curious people, such as descendants of those who used to live in those homes, often visit the Oenoke Ridge Road organization’s research library to find out what they can about them or to view photographs of the structures, according to Executive Director Nancy Geary.
“From our point of view, for there not to be a process where we can at least get out and document what was there, what was the original 1750 house, to preserve that for the records of New Canaan history, to me is a great shame,” Geary said during a meeting of the Historical Review Committee.
The volunteer group convened in the Historical Society’s Town House to decide whether to delay the demolition-in-progress at 251 White Oak Shade Road, a project that’s been under a cease-and-desist order from New Canaan’s chief building official since Feb. 6.
Ultimately, the five-person committee—Chairman Mike Farrell, Laszlo Papp, Ed Vollmer, Rose Scott Long and Martin Skrelunas—voted unanimously to forego the demolition delay.
That’s because imposing such a delay would only further expose the antique home to the elements, Scott Long said.
“I think this is kind of a quandary because there has already been significant damage done to the house by the demolition,” she said.
“We walked through it, it seems significant additions were made in the 1920s, and it’s slightly difficult to tell what was original and what was done in the ’20s. We walked through and spoke to the owner, architect and contractor and we all felt that what was left needed to be protected. They showed us their drawings it’s a very significant change—from what I see there will be no recognition of the house as it stands now. It is going to be significantly altered. We felt that to some degree, putting a delay on it would only cause further damage because it’s very open to the elements right now. I don’t know what benefit there would be to a delay because the damage would just continue, if there was any ability to work with owners in the meantime to try and preserve what is there, from what I have seen the cart is before the horse here. The drawings, the designs has already been done and it would have been good if the owners had known the significance of the property and been able to work with some of us to maintain the appearance that is there now.”
The property was purchased for $840,000 in December by Elena and Dmitiry Kochin, tax records show.
Dmitiry Kochin said the contractor’s moving ahead with demolition was a “legitimate mistake” and that “it is easy to be confused by [the] wording” of paperwork needed to carry out home building projects.
He referred specifically to an area of a building permit application that asks for the square footage of total demolition and the square footage of any interior demolition. On the application filed on behalf of the Kochins, the line specifying square footage of the total demolition said zero.
“When a person applies for a construction permit, but it says the area of ‘total demolition,’ because we did not intend to demolish the floor totally, it can be read as the demolition of the whole structure, and that is why I believe that our architect put down ‘zero,’ ” Dimitry Kochin said.
According to a building permit issued Jan. 29, the work at the house was to consist of “interior alterations only.” The building permit application describes only “remodeling/alteration of 2nd floor 1,600 [square feet]” in addition to some first floor work.
Though drawings for the project, which appear to be inaccurate, not that the work will include to “demolish second floor” the applicants “should have been more clear,” Chief Building Official Brian Platz said.
“They contradict themselves,” he said. “I don’t want to say it’s deceptive, but the written word is stronger than the plans. Keeping in mind that my statutory obligation for records retention for single-family dwellings is the construction documents I must keep for the life of the structure. The construction drawings we do not keep. We only have to keep them for two years or return them immediately to the owner on issuance of a C of O.”
The drawings themselves “are not necessarily accurate, nor are the drawings matching up to the written description.”
“They are not consistent with the written description,” he said. “That is why we are here. The written description is what we value more than the drawings and the written description on the application was ‘renovation’ and when we asked for the square footage of total demo, the applicant put ‘zero.’ So I work with the information that is in front of me.”
Scott Long noted that there’s a fine in the state statutes for unpermitted demolitions of $500, and when told by Platz that the fee for a demo permit is typically $565, she said: “So it’s even less if you demo without a permit. That seems a little wacko.”
Under Chapter 541 of the Connecticut General Statutes, the State Demolition Code is administered by the local building official and a permit is needed to “demolish any building, structure or part thereof.” Anyone who violates the provisions of the Demolition Code “shall be fined not more than five hundred dollars or imprisoned not more than one year or both,” under state law.
Scott Long said she was “a little dismayed that there is not some sort of penalty not from us.”
“Because some people have told me personally put a delay on it so there is a penalty for this—but I don’t see that as our job. We are not here to penalize. I see that as something that comes from the Building Department.”
Platz said there’s no enabling statute that enables him to penalize or fine: “Violations of the State Building or Demolition Code need to go through the court system of the state level.” It’s a lengthy process and the $500 fine itself is collected by the state, not the town, he said.
“The penalty is the delay,” Platz said.
He added: “They have been stalled in project for, I believe, three weeks now since the initial demolishing. That is a greater penalty. The time is a greater penalty than the $500.”
Farrell noted that, had the process worked as required under local ordinance, with an application for a demolition permit and a likely subsequent 90-day delay that allowed for committee members to work with the property owners, “there would have been an opportunity for objections” raised by a local resident who filed a formal objection to the demolition.
“There would have been an opportunity for us to consider that,” Farrell said. “There would have been an opportunity for us to say, ‘Hold up until certain things are done’ ” and worked to figure out a way to respect the structure’s history in an update to the home, as was done recently on Forest Street.
Farrell described the state statute regarding unpermitted demolitions as amounting to “a tap on the wrist for violating the ordinance.”
Dmitiry Kochin said that his intention is to preserve the original part of the house, including a fireplace, and that “the site is very tight,” so the plan is to build up vertically within the same footprint as what’s there.
Papp said any effort on the Kochins’ part to preserve exterior features or anything that may be considered historical—for example, some windows that have already been removed from the structure—“to incorporate it into the plan would be very useful and helpful to the town.”
Papp said he agreed that delaying demolition would not be beneficial “but I also think somehow it should be made available to public through newspapers, to point out that this is a serious mistake by the architect to handle this not understanding the statute, not understanding what the requirements are.”
He added: “It is damaging the public, so I think some kind of publicity warning in that direction would be helpful so that it would be more recognized in recognizing the process and next time, it would be easier to deal with it.”
Charlie Robinson of the New Canaan Preservation Alliance—himself a practicing historic preservationist—said the White Oak Shade home appears to be one of 27 to 29 pre-Revolution buildings that still stands in New Canaan.
“That is significant,” Robinson said. “This is important for this town and its history.”
He said there’s still an opportunity to for some of the talented architects on the committee to review plans with the Kochins and “revisit your goals for the house.”
“I submit now would be a time to revisit these plans,” he said. “We cannot undo what has been knocked off. We can encourage the doing of a better outcome.”