Diane Fox heads the recently formed Greenwich Preservation Network (GPN), but in her former role as director of Planning & Zoning, she accumulated 20+ years of experience, becoming knowledgeable of zoning regulations and even working on projects for historic preservation.
While property rights prevail, and there is nothing to prevent the owner of a historic home from tearing it down, save for the extra 45-day waiting period triggered when someone writes a letter of objection to the Town, Ms. Fox is keenly aware that more must be done to raise awareness of the value of historic preservation.
“This is a network,” Fox said of her organization. “It doesn’t have any ground in terms of enforcement. In other words, anything we say, we can’t back by law. We make recommendations and we make the public aware of what is going on.”
Indeed, the dilemma was evident this summer when Robert S. Stone, the owner of Lockwood House, a historic home dating back to 1875, was represented by attorney Thomas Heagney in his application to subdivide the property, and then demolish the historic house to make way for two new houses.
“This is the reality of the market as it exists. New houses sell quickly, old houses take longer,” Mr. Heagney explained to the Planning & Zoning Commissioners on July 19.
On Aug 2 the commission approved the subdivision.
The Greenwich Preservation Network was established by the Greenwich Historical Society in January 2015. By connecting the leadership of public and private organizations and business, the GPN is working on economic and governmental incentives to preserve historic and architecturally significant structures – residential, commercial and institutional – as well as develop programs and publicity to educate the Greenwich community.
Fox said the number one priority of the GPN is to raise public awareness. With specially designed programs, the GPN aims to educate people of all ages about the historical treasures this town holds.
“We write letters, we appear before certain boards, and we support other efforts. That was really the network idea: to take people already involved with these preservation processes and give them support.
Representing GPN, Fox addressed the Architectural Review Committee last November when they took up Catterton Associates’ proposed demolition of the historic gatehouse and stonewall at 599 West Putnam Ave. She described the wall and gatehouse as important aspects of the streetscape that should be preserved as much as possible. Ultimately, the stone wall was saved.
However, Greenwich is a very busy market for real estate.
“A lot of people move in and out of this town, and they don’t know the history, the historic neighborhoods, or the historic buildings we have,” Fox said.
Realtors often recognize the historical value of houses, but buyers can’t afford the expenses needed to upkeep the house. Demolition is understandably cheaper and quicker.
“We’ve had a couple of buildings come down – historic buildings – and there isn’t much we can do about that. There are no laws saying you can’t tear down this building, except in certain districts. The GPN isn’t anti-development – some buildings should be torn down. But others should be preserved, and there’s not a whole lot of them left.” – Diane Fox
The GPN tracks the demolition list and steps in if they see a house of historic significance in the path of the wrecking ball. They’ll try to work with the realtor or homeowner to explore whether preserving the house is feasible.
If a realtor acquires a listing that looks – in any way – old or historic, the first step should be to contact the GPN or the Greenwich Historical Society to see if it’s a “plaque” building (a building that has history). Fox pointed out that selling a plaque building could be a fantastic marketing point for realtors.
The GPN also faces the challenge of trying to find buyers who like historic homes. “It’s a limited market, but it does exist. It’s a question of how to put the buyer and seller together,” Fox said. “I’ll admit that this is quite difficult.”
In the case of National and Local Historic Districts, developers are forced to go through a lengthy process with the Historic District Commission if they want to start a project. Within these zones, demolition is much harder to enact. One such zone is located on Strickland Road near the Bush-Holley House. Another is the Stanwich historic area on Taconic Road, near the Stanwich Congregational Church. The third is on Round Hill Road, which encompasses the First Church of Round Hill, the Brown-Kenworthy House, and several other adjacent properties.
In terms of raising public support, Fox and the GPN have a great deal planned:
“We’re trying to get more publicity. We want to make people aware of us, not just the GPN, but the kinds of programs that we implement.
We want to get a booklet out – what I call a self-guided walking tour of the district. There will be booklets coming out in different neighborhoods so people will be able to walk around and see signs and places of historical significance. It will also be an educational tool for schools.” – Diane Fox
Anyone who wishes to be in touch with Ms. Fox or the GPN should email Christopher Shields at the Greenwich Historical Society. Ms. Fox described him as the “intermediary” between the two organizations.
If you know of a house in your neighborhood that is architecturally or historically significant, please let the GPN know.
Check out this letter the GPN sent to the Planning and Zoning commission: 599 WEST PUTNAM LETTER SENT TO P&Z