P&Z Watch: Applicant Who Violated Historic Overlay Calls P&Z “Inflexible.” Commission Says “A Deal is a Deal”

At the Sept 14 Planing & Zoning commission meeting, a pre-application for 133 East Putnam Ave in Cos Cob, subject to a 2013 Historic Overlay agreement, resulted in a heated exchange between the applicant and the commission.

A condition of approval for the 2013 Historic Overlay was that no changes to the building’s historic facade be made without going before the P&Z commission for approval.

In exchange, the applicant, GEH Properties LLC, registered to Griffith Harris, was allowed to make a dance studio out of a large warehouse building behind 133 East Putnam despite it being deficient in parking and despite neighbor opposition.

Over and over, the commission chair Margarita Alban explained the deal struck in 2013, but Mr. Harris argued that he’d received a building permit after the Historic District Commission approved his proposed facade changes.

The problem is HDC is merely advisory to P&Z and didn’t have the authority to approve the work. Only the P&Z commission could greenlight facade changes.

The applicant received a cease and desist order, but changes to the the windows had been made cornices removed and a new front door added.

Mr. Harris said he had retained architect Rudy Ridberg to design changes to the building’s facade to make it more attractive to a retail tenant. He said he did not want to undo the work.

Born and raised in Greenwich, Mr. Harris has had served on the town’s Parks & Rec board, Pomerance Planning committee, Cos Cob Park planning committee, and served as chair of the Greens Committee at the town golf course, which bears his father’s name, the Griffith E Harris Golf Course. Also, he mentioned he owned five additional buildings in the area of 133 East Putnam Ave in Cos Cob.

“I’m not a newbie trying to understand how things were here,” he said. “I grew up here.”

“Face to face, Steven Bishop stamped our plans that Rudy (Ridberg) presented to the Town’s Building Dept to obtain approval for a building permit.”

“It seems as though our heart was in the right place, with intent to follow protocols,” he added. “We are now north of a two-month cease and desist because we thought we did the right thing, and apparently we did not.”

“I don’t want to point fingers,” he said. “It certainly wasn’t some New York developer trying to go 100 miles per hour to trick anybody into window styles that I might prefer over what the commission might prefer.”

Mr. Harris argued that the building had originally been a service station in the 1920s, and that the windows were falling apart and needed to be replaced.

Ms Alban said the Historic Overlay was “in perpetuity.”

Back in 2013, a nine page decision letter spelled out the agreement.

“And in that letter, we said if you ever change things, you should come back to us,” Alban said, adding that the look of the facade of 133 East Putnam Ave had been held up as an example for the developers of 100 East Putnam Ave, across the street on the property where M&T Bank operates. That property is going to be redeveloped for mixed use retail and residential.

“We tortured the developer until he gave us multi-pane windows at 100 East Putnam so it could look, ‘Cos-Cobbey,'” Alban said. “We thought we had a deal with you, and that you would come to us if you would ever make a change.”

“You can’t imagine how we all responded when we saw the transformation because we had spent months trying to get it the same (across the street). Obviously, mistakes were made. You thought you could go to HDC. They didn’t realize we were hinging what we were doing in Cos Cob on your building.”

“A deal’s a deal,” Alban said, adding that the commission was willing to come to some sort of compromise.

1930s historic facade at 133 East Putnam Ave in Cos Cob with multi pane windows and one entrance.
Newly installed door at 133 East Putnam Ave in violation of a Historic Overlay agreement from 2013. Photo: Leslie Yager Sept 17, 2021
Newly installed transom windows and storefront windows at 133 East Putnam Ave in Cos Cob, which received a historic overlay that included a facade easement in 2013. July 21, 2021

Mr. Harris repeatedly argued that Mr. Riberg’s plans were more historic and appealing.

Ms Alban said, “It clutters the front of the building. It doesn’t look historic to me as a result and is not consistent with what we approved.”

While GEH Properties is registered to Mr. Harris, and he owns the warehouse and 133 East Putnam Ave, he said the dance studio owner worked with P&Z back in 2013.

“I was not the applicant to convert the warehouse into a dance studio, so the notion that I was at the bargaining table is not correct,” Harris said.

“I hope there are some independent thinkers there,” Mr. Harris continued. “I think the design by Rudy Ridberg is absolutely in character. It does seem as though there are certain people who like the look and that’s the way it should be, but historically speaking, it is not a pattern that is enormously prevalent.”

“What level of government did the commission or some other department decide that full divided light is necessary in Cos Cob?” he asked.

“I resent the implication that you have people who are not independent thinkers,”Alban said. “I would appreciate not going down that route. We got the application for the dance studio, and we said alright, but give us a historic overlay on this building and maintain it as it is in perpetuity.”

“How I may feel about divided light windows really doesn’t come into it,” Alban continued. “The issue is it was a deal we made to give the dance studio to 133 E Putnam with insufficient parking. That was the contract. It’s not an issue of being a free thinker. I certainly hope that my commissioners follow the regulations as they are supposed to by law.”

“This was the deal. We made a deal we could keep that facade,” Alban said. “I have the law on my side on this.”

“It was my understanding that renovations to the building were permitted subject to the town’s approval,” Mr. Harris said.

“‘The town’ happened to be P&Z commission, not the Historic District commission, and the letter sent to the property owner says that,” Alban repeated. “You have a copy of that letter that says it has to come before us. Somebody made a mistake and did not come before us. We are trying to fix this to come to a settlement. A deal’s a deal. Think on this and come back and talk to us.”

Mr. Harris pressed on. “Is there no one on the commission who likes the design?” he asked.

“That’s not the issue,” Alban said.

“I think it is,” Mr. Harris said.

“We put a condition on a site plan approval. You are saying you can ignore the legal conditions in that letter. If you do that, Greenwich goes to hell in a hand basket because that means everyone can do whatever they want regardless of the decision letter….”

“What does it mean that the HDC unanimously approved it?” Mr. Harris asked.

“You were not supposed to go to them. You were supposed to come to us,” Alban said.

Town Planner Katie Deluca reminded Mr. Harris that the HDC is only advisory to P&Z.

“Mistakes have probably been made on both sides. I’m trying to work with you,”Alban said. “We have a HO regulation. If someone agrees to protect a building in perpetuity and completely change how it looks without coming back to the commission, then no protection will hold up. We might as well not bother and let everybody tear down our history in Greenwich.”

“Now I regret agreeing to it,” Mr. Harris said.

“You could close the dance studio and give up the Historic Overlay,” Alban said.

“That’s disingenuous remark,” Mr. Harris said. “I’d bring Kate Truesdale on the phone and let her hear what you just said.”

“I’ve talked to her about it and I know she would be very upset. We gave you the dance studio in exchange for the Historic Overlay.”

“Do you know how much this cost?” Harris added. “I walked out of town hall with a permit.”

Attorney Tom Heagney offered a legal point.

He said Connecticut has “the Doctrine of Municipal Estoppel,” which he said meant if an applicant was mistakenly given a building permit, and the applicant had spent money believing process had been followed, the applicant would be protected and can exercise the permit.

Ms Alban disagreed. She said she had consulted the Town’s counsel and noted that she had seen that the permit posted in the window with the wrong address. Instead of 133 East Putnam, it referred to 137 East Putnam Ave.

“I’m not sure it was correctly obtained,” she said. “I have discussed this with our counsel. I understand you spent a lot of money and I’m sorry for that. I’d like to hear you’ll work with us and I’m not hearing that.”

Commissioner Peter Lowe agreed with Ms Alban.

“This is fundamentally a clear violation of the Historic Overlay,” Lowe said. “That’s a clear fact. If the commission were to say that’s fine, never mind, then no Historic Overlay will be worth the paper it’s printed on.”

Lowe said the attorney, the applicant, and architect should “go back, simmer down, and come back with a proposal that addresses the concerns of the commission rather than have this knock down, ‘He said, She said.'”

“I’d like cooler heads to prevail,” said Deputy P&Z director Patrick LaRow.

Mr. Harris persevered.

“I have now taken 70 days of time, which I don’t even want to begin to quantify financially,” Mr. Harris said. “I’m looking at the easement declaration and nothing that pertains to a specific window design. …I don’t know where the window pane thing is coming from. It feels like it’s coming from one person and everyone is following along.”

“Rudy designed a beautiful, in character storefront,” he added. “I think the Town of Greenwich, which used to be a collective process needs to own the fact that process and I walked out with a building permit and spent over $100,000 and now you’re telling me to take them out.”

“No we aren’t. We suggested you put in inserts to make them look like they’re simulated divided light,” Alban said.

“It’ll be cheap and they’ll probably blow off,” Harris said. “I don’t understand the lack of flexibility.”

Dennis Yeskey joined Mr. Lowe in agreeing with Ms Alban.

After Mr. Harris’ was muted on Zoom, the item was left open.

See also:

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Up to the Minute Greenwich Property Transfers, Aug 30, 2021

P&Z Watch: At Gregory’s Coffee, Left Turn onto Rte 1 in Question

192-Unit Affordable Housing Development Would Raze Restaurant, Historic Houses

Pre-Application Submitted to Greenwich P&Z for 192-Unit 8-30g Development on Church Street in Downtown