Historic Preservation in Connecticut
Innovative Public Policy Tools
Contact: Gregory Farmer, Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation
New Options for Local Preservation
One of the most exciting developments in historic preservation in Connecticut in recent years has been the development of municipal preservation ordinances. These ordinances, formalized under state enabling legislation passed in 2013, offer towns and cities new powers and flexibility to protect, enhance, and build on their historic resources.
Although Connecticut has more than one hundred regulatory Local Historic Districts, they cover only a fraction—less than 25 percent—of the buildings and neighborhoods listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. That leaves thousands of other historic buildings and scores of other historic districts with no protection and no formalized means of providing technical assistance or advice to property owners making renovations or alterations.
The City of Hartford pioneered a new approach in 2006, when it adopted Connecticut’s first municipal preservation ordinance. The ordinance established a formal city policy to encourage the preservation of historic resources. Under the new ordinance, the city’s historic preservation commission is authorized to review and approve exterior changes or demolition of buildings listed on the State or National Register, or under consideration for listing, without requiring the establishment of a Local Historic District.
“The historic preservation ordinance has bought about a dramatic change in the culture around historic properties in Hartford,” says Greg Secord, vice-chair (and former chair) of the historic preservation commission. The Hartford commission has reviewed about 4,500 applications in the last six years and has demonstrated that the preservation ordinance is compatible with economic development in the city. Mr. Secord explains: “We have worked hard to minimize delays, to be collaborative, and to encourage property owners to be in touch as they plan a project.” One way has been to delegate routine matters to city staff. This allows simple projects, such as replacing a roof in like materials, to bypass the commission hearing.
One initial concern about the ordinance was that it might increase costs for property owners, but Mr. Secord reports that the issue has come up very rarely in practice. He cites the commission’s willingness to work with property owners to find solutions and even to approve alternate materials such as siding or replacement windows where they don’t seriously impair historic character.
Last year, New Britain approved the state’s second preservation ordinance, with language almost identical to Hartford’s. The historic preservation commission is still establishing its programs and procedures, but already the mayor and property owners are informally coming to the commission with questions about preservation and treatment of historic properties.
To encourage other towns and cities to adopt similar provisions, the Connecticut Trust sponsored passage of a statewide enabling act in the 2013 session of the General Assembly. The law, titled “An Act Authorizing the Establishment of Historic Preservation Commissions” (PA 13-181) is very simple. It allows municipalities to “protect the historic or architectural character of properties or districts that are listed on or under consideration for listing on, the National Register of Historic Places…or the state register of historic places.”
This simple language gives towns and cities great leeway in determining how to implement a preservation commission under the new enabling law. The Connecticut Trust has drafted a model Historic Preservation Ordinance, based on the ordinances that have been successfully adopted in Hartford and New Britain.
The model ordinance provides a modest level of municipal review for properties that are listed on the State or National Register of Historic Places, but are not included in local historic districts. Within that framework, municipalities will choose different preservation strategies. Towns and cities can choose the degree of involvement that best suits them.
At the most basic level, the preservation commission can concentrate on public awareness, sponsoring events, publications, and educational opportunities about the town’s history and historic resources. The commission also might help the town incorporate historic attractions and character into tourism marketing campaigns.
For a moderate degree of involvement, the commission can serve an advisory function, providing non-binding information and advice to town boards, commissions, developers, and property owners. The City of Stamford recently set up an advisory historical commission to assist city staff and local land use boards.
At the highest level, chosen in Hartford and New Britain, the commission has a regulatory function, reviewing and approving alterations to historic buildings, including demolition.
These suggestions don’t rule out the possibility that local officials and citizens could add other interpretations of their own. One of the great possibilities of the enabling law is that it leaves room for innovative ideas about how best to preserve and enhance each community’s own unique mix of historic resources.