Protective Instincts for Old Greenwich: Village District Proposal Takes Shape

The village of Old Greenwich has been in the news several times in recent years with stories stemming from its timeless appeal. The idyllic village that thousands of people from all parts of town pass through on the way to the beach is compelling.  The sights of parents pumping cargo bikes full of toddlers to Old Greenwich School and the Memorial Day parade featuring vintage fire trucks are as nostalgic as Norman Rockwell paintings.

But stories also stem from the pressures of escalating real estate prices and rent hikes such as the one last year that caused John Hilton, owner of The Haircut Place, to walk away from 640 Sound Beach Ave where the business operated since 1958 rather than see the rent double.

Other headlines have been about the mixed use buildings for sale on Sound Beach Ave and Arcadia Road by one set of owners in a family trust.

In 2022 there was a brouhaha over the artificial flower display around the window of a popular boutique on Sound Beach Ave that was ultimately ruled to be an “eye catching device” warranting a fine from the town.

In 2023 the pitchforks came out in response to a proposal for a colorful ‘welcome to Old Greenwich’ mural on the side of a building otherwise blank.

Just up Sound Beach Ave a 2018 Dept of Public Works proposal for a bridge that included a 100-ft traffic circle by the Perrot Library drew opposition from residents who prefer the existing tiny traffic island that is both confusing and quaint. The Planning & Zoning commission vote on an MI for the traffic circle failed to carry (3 in favor 2 opposed) and the tiny traffic circle remains.

That controversy, and perhaps the town’s reaction to the green Eversource pedestrian bridge in Bruce Park that took residents by surprise in 2020, gave birth to an effort the following year led by Rita Baker and Candace Garthwaite to designate a .6 mile loop around northern Binney Pond including a stretch of Sound Beach Ave as a “scenic road.”

The successful effort resulted in some protections for scenic resources there and require a public forum be held on projects proposed by DPW, who are not otherwise always required to appear before P&Z.

Indeed Old Greenwich residents are protective of their parks, Binney Pond and its turtles, their scenic views and of course the facade of the Old Greenwich School which is headed for a renovation rather than a replacement.

At the time the Scenic Road designation was proposed, Ms Garthwaite testified to P&Z, saying “The community felt so strongly and emotionally about this sense of place.”

Carrying that sentiment forward to the 2024 Old Greenwich Association meeting last week, Garthwaite spoke about how a coalition of residents were preparing to submit a Village District proposal to the P&Z commission in the next few weeks.

She said a Village District was consistent with both Greenwich’s 2009 and 2019 Plans of Conservation and Development, and the goal was to preserve and maintain the distinctive look of the village as it relates to the use, scale and facades of existing buildings.

“Any new construction or major renovations would be reviewed as to maintain a continuity of scale and proportion of what is already in the village,” Garthwaite said.

View from railroad bridge of Memorial Day parade on Sound Beach Ave in 2019.

Garthwaite said it was also important for Old Greenwich to continue to be pedestrian-friendly with its diverse and engaging shops, restaurants and services.

Today the village is in the LBR-2 zone (Local Business Retail) which already provides guidelines for commercial development. However, a Village District Overlay would provide an extra layer of review.

Garthwaite cited CT Statute 8-2J (1) which allows towns to create Village Districts for the protection of distinctive areas like Old Greenwich, and include them in their regulations.

From the statute:

“Such districts shall be located in areas of distinctive character, landscape or historic value that are specifically identified in the plan of conservation and development of the municipality.”

“In other words, statute 8-2 allows for this extra layer of review when it comes to the design and placement of buildings and maintenance of public views in the commercial area of Old Greenwich,” Garthwaite explained.

In Connecticut 26 towns have already created Village Districts, and some have more than one.

Wilton, Ridgefield, New Canaan, Weston, West Haven, Madison and Glastonbury have village districts. Norwalk has four: Rowayton Ave Village District, East Ave Village District, Golden Hill Village District, and Silvermine Tavern Village District.

Garthwaite, suggested residents take a long look at some of the more distinctive buildings in the village of Old Greenwich and study their facades, fenestrations, and use of stone and brick, as well as the size and placement and trim of different windows.

“How do these different buildings relate to each other?” she asked. “The Village District Overlay will be to try maintain a continuity and proportion for the village.”

It’s important to note that a Village District is distinctive from a Historic District, though both increase local control over the design and construction, or rehabilitation of buildings.

Connecticut’s law that allows towns to establish Village Districts was created in 1998, whereas the Historic District law was adopted back in 1961 and there is more case law defining its scope.

A town can establish a Village District by amending its zoning regulations, which is more straightforward.

Unlike traditional zoning, the creation of a Village District requires that new construction and substantial reconstruction in the district visible from the road be subject to review by an architect selected by the commission.

Whereas, establishing a local Historic District “requires the passage of an ordinance following a study of the proposed district and the vote of property owners in the affected area in which at least two-thirds vote in favor of creating the district.”(2)

Greenwich already has three local Historic Districts: Strickland Road and Mill Pond Court district in Cos Cob, the Round Hill Road/John Street district, and the Stanwich district.

If the district is authorized, the municipality must establish a historic district commission, which can adopt regulations.

Greenwich indeed has a Historic District Commission.

In the historic districts, the erection of new buildings and demolition of existing buildings requires a Certificate of Appropriateness from the HDC, as does the alteration of exterior architectural features of existing buildings.

With a Historic District, the commission can seek a restraining order if anyone violates its rulings or regulations, and the court can order the removal of any building or architectural feature in violation of the law or the substantial restoration of a building or feature that was altered or demolished in violation of the law. Violators are subject to a fine.

But back to the potential advantages of a Village District. Establishing one can give Greenwich a broader range of powers with regard to development within the district.

The coalition of residents that include Garthwaite will be submitting their proposal for an Old Greenwich Village District to the Greenwich Planning & Zoning commission for consideration in coming weeks.

Stay tuned.


(2) Village Districts vs Historic Districts CGA CT.Gov