Stamford lost an invaluable historic treasure last Monday after the City issued a permit to demolish the 243 year old house of Revolutionary War veteran Andrew Doherty (1721-1809) at 808 High Ridge Road. In doing so, the City of Stamford ignored timely objections that were filed by a neighbor of the property and the Historic Neighborhood Preservation Program (HNPP).
The humble and venerable house was something that Stamford should have cherished. It was built in 1770 for Andrew Doherty (sometimes Dogherty), a Stamford native who served in General Waterbury’s regiment and is buried in the old North Street cemetery. His Irish surname stood out within Stamford’s predominantly English community during his lifetime. We could have learned more about Andrew Doherty through clues he left behind in the physical plan and construction of the house and archaeology on the site. But the City, by placing the desires of a developer over the good of its people, took away our ability to get to know him better.
HNPP is Stamford’s city-wide non-profit historic preservation organization committed to the protection of our community’s architectural heritage. On September 6 we filed an objection to demolition. On September 7 a neighbor filed another objection. Such objections do not necessarily permanently stop demolition. But they do provide the time necessary to engage the owner and the City to explore reasonable alternatives, such as re-use of the structure within the new development or its relocation. The City took these options off the table when it ignored our objections and issued a demolition permit, on which the developer jumped.
The City has admitted that our request was received in time to be effective and claims that our objection was “overlooked.” The second objection that was made by a neighbor was “disqualified” because of a legal opinion from the City’s corporation counsel that the objection was invalid because it was received by the City a day too early, even though they acknowledged receipt. Can you imagine!?
Federal, state, and yes, even City of Stamford laws protect historic structures from unnecessary destruction because rare buildings like Andrew Doherty’s house contribute to our quality of life. Stamford’s ordinances are explicit in this regard:
It shall be the policy of the City of Stamford and its boards, commissions and departments to give priority to the preservation of the city’s historic architecture and character. All boards, commissions and departments of the city, including but not limited to those dealing with planning, zoning, transportation, health and safety, shall consider historic and architectural significance and preservation when making decisions concerning whether and how properties and adjacent infrastructure should be rehabilitated, mothballed, maintained, or demolished, including decisions concerning to whom dispositions of property will be made. Properties owned by the City of Stamford shall not be excluded. Demolition shall be treated as an alternative of last resort and shall be utilized only when other reasonable alternatives do not exist. (Section 27.8.B of the City Code of Ordinance)
This house could and should have been saved. The loss of this landmark saddens and deeply disturbs us. The municipal law in place to protect historic buildings from such outrageous action was disregarded. If the City goes out of its way to ready a wrecking ball to aim and fire at the home of a patriot of the War of Independence, is any historic structure protected?
We cannot bring Andrew Doherty’s house back. But we can act together to ensure that the demolition delay ordinance is made to work in the way that it was intended.
The stay of demolition ordinance needs to be tightened to clarify notification and response requirements. Demolition delays should be automatic for any property that is historic or that has been designated a local landmark under the Old Long Ridge Village Historic District Commission ordinance, Stamford’s only local historic district commission. The owner’s obligation to protect the building during the delay, including keeping it secure, weather tight, and prohibiting any abatement of hazardous materials, should be made explicit and enforced.
We believe the citizens of Stamford have had enough. A year ago, 65% of voters approved establishing a Historic Preservation Advisory Commission (HPAC) to advise City agencies and commissions in the land use review process. Although the Board of Representatives enacted an ordinance in April, the Mayor has failed to appoint any members. If this Commission had been in place this fiasco might have been avoided.
Reasonable measures such as demolition delays and the new advisory commission serve to protect our endangered common heritage while also protecting an owner’s property rights – all in the spirit for which Andrew Doherty risked his life to give us our future. In tipping the scales in favor of a private developer over the public good, the City impoverished us and dishonored the memory of a Connecticut American Veteran, Andrew Doherty.
We urge you to let the Mayor and your Representatives know how you feel. We are asking to City to honor its previously made promises, not to mention the law, by making sure that the fiasco that took place on High Ridge Road during the early morning hours when no one was watching does not happen again.
Marshall Millsap, President, HNPP
Wes Hayes, Executive Director, HNPP