The RTM Land Use Committee met on Sept 15 on Zoom, when the agenda included the reappointment of longtime Historic District Commission member Darius Toraby.
For Mr. Toraby, who has been on the commission since 2011, this would be his third three-year term.
Toraby, who has 40 years experience as an architect and is the principal in his own firm, has worked with the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, including work preserving and restoring the Bush Tower, a 30 story skyscraper in Midtown Manhattan built in 1916–1918.
Back at the end of May, the Appointments Committee voted 9-0-0 in favor or Mr. Toraby’s reappointment.
At that meeting Mr. Toraby mentioned he had lived in his historic house for 29 years, and that it was two doors down from the Historical Society on Strickland Rd, in a historic district. Toraby’s house at 31 Strickland is known as the Amos Brush House.
During the Land Use committee’s meeting on Sept 15, committee chair Peter Berg asked Mr. Toraby if he had a conflict of interest concerning the project next door which involves the demolition of an 1870 carriage house at 35 Strickland Rd.
The owner George Flouty is seeking to build a two story house and garage there.
HDC is advisory to the Planning & Zoning commission and is charged with ensuring historic district guidelines are properly observed. Because the 1870 barn on Strickland is in a Local Historic District, HDC makes the final decision whether to approve the demolition, not P&Z.
Toraby said the structure had been the original carriage house for his own historic home and today he shares a common driveway with it through an easement.
“Progress must march on,” he said of the carriage house being replaced with a new home. “So we (HDC) have been trying to help them with the reconstruction design in such a way as to be in congruity with the spirit of the district, its architecture and the original barn that was there.”
“It’s been going and going and going, and now it’s a new building that is designed to be more than twice as big with an additional structure on the property and so forth,” he said.
The other architect on HDC is Aris Crist, who was hired by Mr. Flouty, who paid $1,050,000 for the property on Nov 29, 2018.
Mr. Crist is also a member of the HDC, and has not participated in the HDC meetings for the application.
Toraby said that in his absence at the HDC meetings Mr. Crist’s designs are presented by Flouty’s attorney, which he said was problematic.
“The design has been presented by the owner’s attorney who is not knowledgeable about architecture and parrots the presentation that is given to him,” Toraby said. “And at times has also been extremely offensive when I have posed questions, and started to bully me, and therefore the commission in silencing us.”
Asked whether he’d gotten a legal opinion about whether to recuse himself, Toraby said the town attorney had not given him the directive to recuse himself.
“In the absence of that I have continued to serve positively,” Toraby said. “I am the only member who can read plans and understand what is shown or missing or not in compliance with previous directives.”
Toraby also said he had not voted against the project.
Asked if the new house would have an impact on the value of his property value, Toraby said, “As long as it is in the spirit of the buildings in the design language in this district, it would be a positive addition.”
“But,” he said, “In essence, I really don’t think it’s appropriate for one of the most historic structures in the district be allowed to be demolished. But that ship has sailed.”
“From my point of view I think there is a conflict of interest and you should recuse yourself,” said Jude Collins, who asked Toraby if he’d consulted the Ethics Committee.
Toraby said he had not consulted the Ethics Committee. The Town’s Code of Ethics spells out violations ,which include more than financial interest to include gifts & favors and improper influence.
Also, Connecticut state statutes, Title 8m Chapter 124, Section 8-11 – covers disqualification of members of zoning authorities, including, “No member of any zoning commission or board and no member of any zoning board of appeals shall participate in the hearing or decision of the board or commission of which he is a member upon any matter in which he is directly or indirectly interested in a personal or financial sense.”
“We don’t have monetary interest in the property,” Toraby said. “Nor do we have conflict with the proposal, which we have welcomed. I don’t feel I have a conflict of interest.”
Toraby said he was offended by the suggestion. “I’ve been serving on this commission with utmost degree of professionalism and integrity.”
“This is a little more familiar to me because it’s before me for 30 years, but I think that has made my contributions of greater value to the commission,” he continued. “If I wasn’t on the Commission there was no one else to have experience or knowledge about the design aspect of this project.”
Toraby said if the Ethics Committee ruled he should recuse himself, he said he would consider it.
“But I don’t think it is reasonable to accuse me of having a self interest of the property or project,” he said.
“At times, with the previous owner, we negotiated to see if they would be amenable to sell the driveway back to the original house, our house, but we could not come to terms at that time,” he continued.
Toraby said Mr. Flouty’s proposal to demolish the property and replace it with a new house had come before the HDC numerous times.
“It’s been an arduous task in getting that project off the ground,” he said. “Eventually the commission agreed, somewhat at my dismay, that the barn, the most historic aspect of that property, be torn down.”
Mr. Flouty weighed in, saying his proposal was for a smaller house than P&Z regs allow for – two floors 21 ft high, whereas zoning allows 35 ft.
He described how Mr. Toraby had caused the application to drag on, saying Toraby was away when the HDC voted to approve the plans as submitted in December, but came back in February and challenged what had been approved. Because of Covid, the applicant didn’t return before HDC until July, when they received a second approval, “subject to a couple questions.”
“The chair said if we submitted our response, there was no need to have another meeting,” Flouty continued. “But just before the deadline Mr. and Mrs. Toraby hired an attorney to challenge the HDC so we have to go back in September.”
“When Mr. Toraby said he lost interest in the driveway purchase, when my wife and I went to their house 18 months ago, the first thing they said was ‘Would you sell us the driveway. It used to belong to us. We’d like to buy it,'” Flouty said. “I received an official monetary offer from the Torabys to buy the driveway, and if I wanted adjustments, they would stop opposing the application. I think that’s extremely significant.”
“He’s objected to everything we suggested,” Flouty said.
Mr. Toraby said the accusations were not true.
Licensed land surveyor Mike Finkbeiner, who has rented the cottage in front of the carriage house from Mr. Flouty and has done many project for him , said there was a quid pro quo.
“Mr. Toraby’s offer was to buy the driveway at a certain price that, by my valuation, is six figures below its fair market value. And the quid pro qo is to remove his opposition to this application,” Finkbeiner said. “In my 50 years experience this is one of the shadiest actions I’ve seen on the part of a land use commission to draw a site plan approval in return for a quid pro quo offered by a member.”
Mr. Berg suggested Mr. Toraby have a discussion with Paul deBary from the Ethics Committee.
“This application is still open and before the HDC. There is another vote to be taken, or perhaps several,” Berg said.
Toraby said Flouty’s accusations were not true and he had never voted against Mr. Flouty’s application.
Jude Collins asked Toraby if either he, his wife, or anyone who was his agent made an offer to purchase the property or part of the property recently?
“My wife, in my absence, without my knowledge, apparently discussed that with the attorney,” he said, but explained the context. “The attorney we hired (Chip Haslun) was not because we wanted to quash Mr. Flouty’s project. It was because Mr. Flouty over the last 4 months, since I had the Covid, insisted we talk to him regarding reconfiguring our driveway easement.”
Lastly, Mr. Toraby said, “I have only criticized this project based on its merits, its technical and aesthetics and appropriateness for this historic district without any prejudice whatsoever.”
The vote on the reappointment of Mr. Toraby for a 3 year term was 6 against, 1 in favor and 5 abstentions. The five who abstained said they felt the Ethics Committee should be consulted first.
Mr. Toraby’s reappointment is on the call for the Sept 21 RTM meeting which starts at 7:00pm.
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