Members of New Canaan’s legislative body said Wednesday night that they’ve been asked to bolster what some see as overly lenient penalties for property owners who demolish their homes without first obtaining proper permits.
Citing a widely discussed case on White Oak Shade Road, where the owners of a pre-American Revolutionary War era home demolished a second floor without a permit, members of the Town Council’s Bylaws and Ordinances Committee said during their regular meeting that some residents have approached them about creating stiffer fines here in town.
As it stands, those who demo a structure without a permit face only a maximum $500 fine and those funds go to the state—that’s “a slap on the pinky,” according to Councilman Steve Karl, committee co-chair.
“That’s basically what you are getting,“ Karl said at the meeting, held in Town Hall.
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.
The town discovered a demolition-in-progress at 251 White Oak Shade Road in February and straightaway ordered a cease-and-desist. Subsequently, the Historical Review Committee met to decide whether to issue a 90-day delay on the demolition. Ultimately, hearing from the homeowners that they wanted to preserve parts of the old house, that committee decided to forgo issuing the delay, so that the home wasn’t open for too long to the elements. (Even so, the property owners last month applied for a permit to take down the entire house.)
Town Council Chairman John Engel noted that the “the biggest penalty” that New Canaan currently has is the 90-day delay. Under the Town Code, if someone formally objects to a demolition by making the case that the structure in question has “significant cultural, historical or aesthetic value” then the delay may be issued. That likely costs the property owner time, hassle and money, though in some cases—notably, a recent instance on Forest Street—it opens up discussions among property owners, contractors and preservationists about alternatives to pure demolition.
Engel, formerly a member of the Zoning Board of Appeals, said he saw during his time on that body that some contractors would risk a scolding or even a fine in order to work outside of approved plans or regulations.
He also wondered aloud whether addressing the problem through an ordinance was preferable to other methods—for example, the Planning & Zoning Commission taking up the matter for its regulations.
Karl said the committee can go to P&Z, though the problem and its possible redress through an ordinance has been requested of the group, “so we will look into it.”