The owner of a prominent Park Street house that’s lingered on the market for two years is seeking more flexibility from town officials than the New Canaan Zoning Regulations normally allow, regarding his home office.
Richard Bergmann, an architect who since 1973 has owned the stately and well-preserved Greek revival at 63 Park St.—a house located in New Canaan’s Historic District that had been owned by Maxwell Perkins, masterful Scribners editor of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Wolfe—on Monday night asked zoning officials for permission to allow the home’s owner to not live in the house while still using its first floor as an office.
Specifically, he’s seeking a variance to a section of the zoning regulations (see page 47 here) that allows for a home-based business by permit so long as the person working there also uses the same dwelling as his or her primary residence, among other requirements. One of those requirements is that no more than one nonresident of the house can be employed on the premises—Bergmann in 1985 obtained a variance that allowed him to employ two people in addition to himself at the 1837-built Park Street home.
In making his statement of hardship, which Bergmann reviewed before the Zoning Board of Appeals at its regular meeting Monday night, the homeowner noted that the house is adjacent to the town’s business district and that a similarly situated residence already has the allowances that he’s seeking. He also said that he is hemmed in by parking lots on three sides, minimizing the negative effect of a more robust business use (the lone residential neighbor—to the west—is supportive, according to Bergmann), that voluminous traffic on Park and Seminary Streets makes the house less desirable for family use and that an expanded office makes sense given the home’s proximity to the train station.
Bergmann pointed to a house at the other end of the Historic District—46 Main St., occupied now on the first floor by law firm Lampert Toohey & Rucci LLC, with rented living quarters above—where a first-floor business use with a residence upstairs is allowed and the property owner is not required to live on site.
He specifically requested that eight employees be allowed to work in the first-floor office space—a figure that gave ZBA members pause.
“Mr. Bergmann, you have been in town a long time,” ZBA member Angelo Ziotas said during the hearing, held at Town Hall. “I think some people on the board have been inside, working with you on things. I have never been inside. We are being asked to approve something and the primary argument you are making is that because 46 main got in 1972 and your house is the same house on a different lot that you should get it—that is not an argument that is convincing enough to the board on its own. That kind of precedent from 45 years ago is not enough to convince the board that you are entitled to that variance here tonight, and I just wanted to have some better understanding of what will happen.”
He added: “If it is going to stay one residence on the top that is more comforting to me. I am still struggling with the use on the first floor … If Mr. Bergmann was running an office or the landlord, even if he was not living there full-time, a lot of people would be comfortable with it. But I don’t know if eight is correct—if six is correct, if 12 is correct—and we are being asked to put specific numbers on this, this evening. So from my perspective—the chair always asks at the end of these hearings if we would like more information—I would like more information.”
Ultimately, the board continued the matter to its July meeting, pending a site visit that will help ZBA members understand how parking will be configured, among other outstanding questions.
Board members asked whether it would be possible to restrict the types of businesses that could occupy the first floor (yes), whether they also could require a single business to work out of that space rather than multiple businesses (yes though that may be prohibitively restrictive), whether Bergmann occupies the second floor as a residence now (yes) and whether the house behind Bergmann’s on Seminary Street is in the Historic District (yes though it’s not truly historic—it’s 1998-built).
The ZBA heard from a Realtor who said she’s had the listing on Park Street for two years, but board members noted that the applicant’s inability to sell the property does not constitute a viable hardship.
Town Planner Steve Palmer said that “the location of [Bergmann’s] property is fairly unique in that it is at a busy intersection in an area that is at a transition from commercial or institutional to residential” and so “he cannot make good use of his property as it stands.”
ZBA member Luke Tashjian said he feared that granting a variance in this case could open up other property owners at the edges of business zones to make similar demands.
“I do not understand the hardship,” board member Ben Bilus said. “We grant variances on the basis of a hardship. I understand [Bergmann’s] economic reasons, but that is not a topographical or other hardship.”
Bergmann responded that he faces hardship in a general (rather than zoning) sense “because the house is historic and it costs a great deal to maintain and it cannot be maintained without income.”
According to a history of the property supplied by Bergmann, 63 Park St. “has had a checkered past.” The Fitch brothers purchased the property in 1836 and built the house, later taking in boarders to help with its upkeep. Nineteen people lived in the 4,500-square-foot residence, some of whom worked in nearby shoe factories that sprung up mid-century, according to Bergmann. It continued as a “genteel boarding house” until 1891, when a shoemaker named Eleazer Francher purchased it and constructed a factory to the south (where the bank is today, on the corner of Elm). A wealthy woman named Edna Rogers who had lived directly across Park Street—site of a municipal parking lot today—bought it in 1902, had the shoe factory demolished and started renting out the rooms in the home to commuters.
In 1919, according to Bergmann, the home became a forerunner of the New Canaan Country School, until Perkins acquired it in 1924. Perkins used the property as both home and office and the Perkins family continued to live there following his death in 1947, renting the first floor to a medical practice. It later was subdivided into four apartments.
The southern portion of the original property was acquired by the late attorney Jerry Silverberg in 1961, and he leased the land to Shell Oil for a gas station. The developer Johnson Lee purchased the home with an eye on converting it into a business use, but was turned down by zoning officials, Bergmann said. He sold one year later to Bergmann himself, and it has served as both home to the family and base of Bergmann’s architecture practice since then.
Asked about future parking for would-be employees—the home just now is served by a driveway and detached 2-care garage—Bergmann said he could expand the parking lot by paving over what is now a garden between the home and garage itself.
Tashjian and other board members said they wanted to see a more detailed plan of the parking.