P&Z Watch: Church-Sherwood 8-30g Attorneys Say “Not Unreasonable Destruction” of Historic Assets

Tuesday’s P&Z Zoom hearing on the 8-30g affordable housing proposal for 192-units between Church Street and Sherwood Place in the historic Fourth Ward drew upwards of 140 people for a four-hour discussion.

There are multiple interveners who oppose the project, including Greenwich Preservation Network.

Developers and those opposed were represented by attorneys.

Attorney Matt Studer, a colleague of Mario Coppola, who is also representing neighbors against Joe Pecora’s proposed 8-30g at 5 Brookridge, said they represent the Town & Country Condo Association on Church Street, as well as four individual residents of the building.

Attorney Andrea Sisca testified on behalf of Sherwood Green Condominiums residents.

Local attorney for the applicant, Chip Haslun, said he was with the principal of Church Sherwood LLC Jim Cabrera, though he did not speak.

Haslun said 18 buildings in the Historic Fourth Ward had already been torn down without opposition to make way for luxury housing.

That was later refuted by JoAnn Messina who formerly lived across the street at The Nantucket condos at 50 Church Street for 25 years. She said indeed there was opposition to the demolition of two historic houses that were lost to make way for the large single-family house and garden.

Also, Katie DeLuca said the commission had approved several historic overlays in the historic district to preserve historic houses.

Mr. Haslun introduced the project architect David Minno, who said project amenities were designed with the “empty nester market” in mind.

“Many times we see people in towns like Greenwich who have lived in a single family home who want to sell that home, buy a second home in Florida or the Carolinas, and keep an apartment in Greenwich where all their roots are,” Minno said.

Minno said the base of the building would be cast stone.

“It is a very rich material,” he said, adding that the rest of the building is brick.

Minno mentioned the building is 82-12 ft high.

While the proposed building is seven stories high, Mr. Haslun emphasized that prior to 1950, when the town limited buildings to four stories, several tall buildings had already been constructed.

“We’re not out of keeping with what’s been built in Greenwich in the past, historically,” Haslun said.

Minno said his design incorporated abundant sunlight. There is a setback over part of the garage to create a courtyard bathed in sunlight from the south.

Attorney Sisca responded to Mr. Minno’s focus on the amount of sunlight for people in the development.

“By building a building seven stories tall, they’re actually leaving my clients in the dark,” she said. “My clients kitchens, living spaces, courtyards are no longer going to be exposed to sunlight.”

From Church Street a colonnaded carriageway with tall glass windows looking into the main lobby spaces leads to a motor court with a European feeling.The motorcourt, which would have access to Sherwood via Putnam Court, would be for pick up and drop off, as well as package deliveries from FedEx, UPS and Amazon.

Mr. Minno said there were 23,000 sq ft of proposed indoor residential amenity and lobby space, and 7,000 sq ft of outdoor courtyard amenity space.

He described both active and passive amenities including a swimming pool with lounge chairs, casual seating, grilling areas and private terraces.

The first floor above grade would feature a club room-lounge that opens onto courtyard, private dining area with wine storage that opens to outdoor grilling area, additional lounge space, fitness room and fitness studio.

The seventh story would be stepped back to create private terraces, which Minno said would reduce the perceived mass of the building.

In addition to mechanicals, the rooftop plan features an 8,000 sq ft amenity deck with a pickle ball court, fire pits, and a landscaped area with seating. The pickle ball court would not be lighted, and the roof gathering spaces would close at 10:00pm.

Rendering looking north of the development’s main entrance from the proposed motor court.

Elusive Plan B

Asked if his client had considered other plans, Mr. Haslun said it the applicant would have liked to move the historic buildings elsewhere.

“I think there’s an opportunity if someone would like to buy one of these houses or all of them for $1.00 and move them elsewhere in the district or somewhere else in the town,” he said.

“We have a letter from the Historic District Commission that says it’s extremely dangerous to move these buildings,” said P&Z commission chair Margarita Alban.

Haslun said it did not make sense to maintain the historic buildings.

“When you look at these individual buildings…” he said, laughing.  “I don’t think there is particularly unique about these buildings.”

“Did you need to obliterate the entire block and wipe out every historic building and go lot-line-to-lot line?” asked commissioner Bob Barolak.

Ms DeLuca explained that even if the applicant worked with the Preservation Council and the Attorney General’s office, “They’re not there to say yes or no. They’re there to develop a compromise, so you’re going to be asked this question.”

Haslun introduced two attorneys from Shipman & Goodwin in Hartford: Mary Jo Andrews, who has extensive experience with SHPO and the state’s Historic Preservation Council, and Matthew Ranelli, an 8-30g expert.

Ms Andrews repeatedly referred to CT Gen Stat § 22a-19a which refers to “unreasonable destruction of historic structures and landmarks of the state.” 

She said when invoked, 22a-19a it only prevents the ‘unreasonable destruction’ of properties listed on the National Register if a court finds the particular demolition to be unreasonable in particular circumstances.

Rendering of Church-Sherwood viewed from Church Street.

Social History vs Architectural History

“We posit that the demolition would be reasonable under these circumstances,” she said.

“The only criteria under which this National Register District was created was for its social history,” she argued, quoting the National Register nomination form from 22 years earlier.

Andrews talked about demolishing the houses to create the type of neighborhood the Fourth Ward originally was, to back the characteristics of the district.

“The history of the district is helping people have affordable housing and that’s what this project does.”

– Matt Ranelli with Shipman and Goodwin, attorney for the applicant

“Why would you tear it down now on the claim that it can serve the same purpose?” Alban asked. “I’m just not coming around to what you’re presenting.”

Of the seven houses the applicant seeks to tear down, Andrews said, “The vast majority are vernacular buildings.”

She said in the application form for the National Register, there was no mention of architecture.

Further she said in a 22a-19a process, neither the P&Z commission, nor the Historic District Commission have decision making roles.

“It’s purely up to the state and the courts,” she said.

“To hear people say they’re building this building in the spirit of how the neighborhood originally started, to me is a bunch of bunk because the building looks like a fortress.”

Dean Gamanos, resident of the Fourth Ward

The route to court is as follows:

The next step is for SHPO, who have confirmed the buildings are contributing to the historic district, puts the project on the agenda of the Historic Preservation Council.

The Council hears presentations from the developer and those opposed to the demolitions. They will then vote on whether to refer the case to the Connecticut Attorney General’s office.

“The Attorney General is not obligated to bring a 22a-19a action just because the Council requests it,” she said, adding that if it goes to court, “The judge would hear testimony and make a determination as to whether the demolition of the subject properties is unreasonable given the circumstances.”

Andrews said there were many steps and decision makers along the way with 22a-19a.

“Following the superior court ruling, either party can appeal to a higher court, after which there could even be a request to the CT Supreme Court to hear the case.”

Numerous times, the commissioners pointed out the applicant had not proposed any alternative plan that would balance the historic resources with the need for affordable housing.

“What we’ve asked you from day one is for you to consider how you might meet these two goals, but you’ve continued along the road of the original proposal without addressing the concern we repeatedly raised,” Alban said. “The whole reason we have the pre-application is that without having spent any money on plans, you can come talk to us about different ways of approaching this before you are committed and spend a huge amount of upfront money.”

“This is the only plan we have before the commission,” Haslun said. “This is the plan the development team wants to go forward with.”

Following Ms Andrews, attorney Matt Ranelli said the existence of intervention petitions was irrelevant to the commission’s job.

“These are not common fare for most commissions,” he said of the 8-30g application. “You are accustom to applying the traditional zoning standards, where you apply your regulations and there’s a traditional standard of review.”

“Mr. Ranelli, you’d be surprised, we are experienced in this. We do understand the statute,” Alban said, adding that 14 new 8-30g applications had been submitted to the town in the past year alone.

“What you’ll hear is this plan strikes the best balance of something that is achievable and preserves the history of the district,” Ranelli said. “The history of the district is helping people have affordable housing and that’s what this project does.”

Only a few public comments were in favor of the development.

Nick Abbott, a Greenwich native and Harvard Law School student, who is an officer with Desegreate CT, said the new development would revive the neighborhood’s diversity rather than preserve a “relic of the past” that served as a “symbol of historic diversity.”

Mr. Abbott said the high number overall of units was also a plus, given the shortage of rental units in town overall.

Commissioner Nick Macri noted that the affordable units were only deed restricted for 40 years. “Forty years to the history of the town is nothing,” he said.

“Why shouldn’t we be asking the developers to give us, not 30%, but 35% or 40% affordable?” asked commissioner Barolak, who said what was driving the economics of development was the high value of land in Greenwich.

Mr. Abott said providing a higher percentage of affordable units meant developments would have to be even larger.

Further, Mr. Abbott said as a young professional looking to stay in his hometown, there was nothing affordable for him.

In his letter to P&Z he he hadn’t found affordable units on Zillow.

“Lower cost units are not on the MLS system, they are not available by the realtor system,” Ms Alban replied. She said in their research the town had looked at the Census and discovered many naturally occurring apartments that cost less than $1,500 a month.

Also, she said P&Z studied commuting distance relative to salaries of town employees.

“What we’ve discovered, interestingly, is many of the higher salary people are the ones who don’t live in Greenwich,” Alban said. “And there is a much better concentration at the lower salary level.”

“We need more than 8-30g kind of housing. We need the full diversity, what Sara Bronin called ‘the missing middle,'” she said, referring to the founder of Desegregate CT.

Alban said the town was considering the “missing middle” in the draft affordable housing plan.

“What’s important is to give people the opportunity to live where they are employed if they so wish. Those people, in some cases are making $150,000 a year and don’t qualify for anything for anything you would call affordable, but they don’t have enough housing opportunity in Greenwich.”

Dan Quigley said the large 8-30g proposals reflected the exodus of New York residents during the pandemic and high land values.

“The only reason this is being proposed to our town is because developers want to capitalize on a very hot real estate market, especially with rentals,” he said. “They see dollar signs over Greenwich.”

He also took Mr. Abbott to task, saying, “When he says there’s not enough housing for him in Greenwich Connecticut – a Harvard Law School graduate who may not be able to afford to buy a house or apartment at 26, like I wasn’t because I lived at home until I was 27. That’s not the reason for affordable housing. It’s not for people like Mr. Abbott.”

Dean Gamanos who lives in the Fourth Ward shared his view.

“To hear people say they’re building this building in the spirit of how the neighborhood originally started, to me is a bunch of bunk because the building looks like a fortress.”

He said when the Fourth Ward was established people knew their neighbors and residents gathered for parties.

Diane Fox from the Greenwich Preservation Network refuted the argument that the district’s value was more about its social history than the historic buildings, noting that the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, a federal agency, has said rehabilitating historic properties to provide affordable housing was sound preservation strategy.

She warned of the precedent the demolitions would set, given Greenwich Avenue and East Putnam Ave in the area of Christ Church are both historic districts.

Further, she said SHPO had encouraged her group to start a petition as a way to weigh community opinion. Their petition to preserve the historic structures reached over 2,300 signatures.

Patrice McCann from the historic Greenwich Lodge said a neighborhood committee had formed to share concerns.

McCann said that while she would love a pool and pickleball court, the proposed building felt to her more like a hotel.

Paul Pugliese of the Greenwich Preservation Trust, Greenwich Preservation Network and the town’s Architectural Review Committee said historic resources were as important as environmental resources. 

He cited a court case in Stonington where the court ruled it was more important to preserve an industrial  property than to have affordable housing, because affordable housing could be placed elsewhere.

“There are many opportunities in town – virtually thousands if you look at how 8-30g is written, for affordable housing,” Pugliese said. “There is no need to destroy designated historic resources in order to provide affordable housing.”

He also talked about sunlight, saying it was hard to reconcile that DEEP requires new docks to be built 6 feet in the air above the mean low water to provide sunlight for grasses growing underneath.

“Yet here the building is allowed to completely block the sky for the neighboring residents,” he said.

Easements and Access

Attorney Haslun said several years earlier there had been a dispute about the use of Putnam Court.

“The judge basically threw up his hands and said I can’t tell who owns Putnam Court,” he said. “It’s ownership is unknown. We do, as the Women’s Exchange have conceded, have rights to use Putnam Court for use of at least 5 of the 11 properties.”

“The Connecticut Supreme Court has held the mere fact that you add other property doesn’t prohibit you from using that access to access that other acquired property,” Haslun continued. “It’s a question of whether you are overburdening the easement or interfering with the use by the other person.”

“…all we’re using it for now is the parking court, which would mostly be served by the occasional visitor, delivery truck, Uber, etc, is probably less a use than what’s there now servicing all these properties back there,” he added.

Roni Schmitz, president of the Greenwich Exchange, a non profit that has owned and occupied their property on the Corner of Sherwood and Putnam Court since 1937, disagreed.

Ms Schmitz said that, along with lots 1-4 of Putnam Court, the Exchange enjoyed a deeded common right to the private road.

She said the development would violate their private property rights.

“No other properties or lots on Sherwood Place or Church Street have such a right,” she said, adding that the Exchange has for 84 years used Putnam Court for parking for its volunteers, customers and suppliers.

“The incorporation of Putnam Court into this project for ingress, egress, deliveries and firetruck access, benefiting properties not entitled to use Putnam Court, would be taking and/or curtailing of the Exchange’s deeded property right,” Schmitz said. “Such incorporation is unlawful as well as unconstitutional.”

Fees for Amenities

Ms Alban said there were concerns about a possible series of tenant fees for basic services that might make the units unaffordable. Mr. Haslun replied that the affordability plan would treat residents equally and they would comply with state law.

Ms Messina who recalled neighborhood opposition to two houses on Church Street that were torn down, also spoke as head of the Greenwich Tree Conservancy, saying while there were no canopy trees in the area, her organization planted six trees along Church Street in memory of her late husband.

“I know the tree warden has been asked to remove seven trees, and we would oppose that,” she said.

Greenwich Communities board chair Sam Romeo waited almost four hours to opine.

“This developer is counting on the statute to be on his side and is looking to go directly to litigation and have the court decide it. I’m totally opposed to this. There is only one true developer of affordable housing, and that is Greenwich Communities.”

Romeo described 8-30g as flawed and needing revision.

The application was left open.

See also:

P&Z Watch: Briefing Meeting Previews P&Z Thoughts on Church-Sherwood 8-30g

April 11, 2022