Bridgeport’s Historic District Commission has been Lopezed. Some have been lasered, some tasered, some Lendered (paging Jon Lender, Hartford Courant) but nothing like an unpacking by retired Superior Court Judge Carmen Lopez who stepped up on behalf of former City Councilman Bob Halstead whose passion for historic preservation in the East Side’s Washington Park collided with the lack of due diligence by the agency provided with true oversight that has led to a dubious gated community. So on this Labor Day weekend, grab a cup of joe and enjoy the laborious work of a legal expert for the common guy needing help. Lopez commentary and letter to commission follows.
Bridgeport City Government is a wonder to behold!
Every time you deal with a Board or Commission you come face to face with the futility, frustration and fatigue that accompany any attempt to gain satisfaction from City Hall.
Recently, I was introduced to Bridgeport’s Historic District Commission #1. There are two Historic Districts in Bridgeport. The other one is the Stratfield Historic District.
The result of this experience was futility, frustration and fatigue.
My odyssey began when I agreed to provide assistance to former City Council member Robert Halstead, a native Bridgeport resident who has a passion for historic preservation. Robert Halstead not only ‘talks the talk’ he ‘walks the walk.’
Putting his money where his labor of love is, Halstead purchased property in the Pembroke Historic District. He has owned the property, which has a Kossuth Street address and faces historic Washington Park for many years.
Recently, a neighbor secured a permit from the City of Bridgeport to install a driveway along with a gate and a curb cut. Because the property is located in a Historic District, a Certificate of Appropriateness should have been obtained from the Historic District Commission #1.
Unfortunately, city officials ignored this prerequisite. They issued the permit and the driveway, the gate and the curb cut were installed.
After I was contacted by Halstead, I contacted the various city departments involved in the issuance of the improper driveway permit. They unanimously agreed that no permit should have been issued without a Certificate of Appropriateness. In fact, as if speaking with one voice, they verbally admitted that the City had ‘dropped the ball.’
Having gained an admission of negligence, but having received no satisfaction, Halstead asked to be put on the agenda for the next meeting of the Historic District Commission #1.
In preparation for the meeting, I authored a three page position statement outlining the factual history of the improper permit, the applicable law regarding historic districts and Robert Halstead’s request for relief.
Historic District Commission #1 is chaired by Stuart Sachs, a trained architect. According to the City of Bridgeport web-site, his term on the Commission expired in 2006, and he has never been reappointed during the ensuing decade. There are four other members of Historic District #1 and one alternate member. All appear to be serving expired terms.
The meeting of July 9, 2018 convinced me that I will never buy a home which is subject to the whims of a Bridgeport Historic District Commission.
Contrary to popular myth, historic districts are not beautification boards, garden clubs, or conventions of old house lovers. They are, at bottom, zoning boards, authorized by state statute. They govern what affected property owners are permitted to do with their property.
As we waited during the meeting for Halstead’s matter to be heard, a property owner was requesting a Certificate of Appropriateness. The individual, who owns property near lower East Main Street, was asked about the details of her planned renovations. Commissioners expressed concerns with the appropriate types of nails to be used as well as the type of siding.
The owners were respectful and endured all of the questions and acquiesced to the Commission’s preferences.
Bridgeport should be encouraging residences who seek to enhance their properties, thereby increasing the Grand List. But instead of asking ‘how can we help,’ the City through Historic District #1, erects roadblocks and micro manages other people’s property.
Fortunately, I was about to discover just how hollow and meaningless any threats issued by the Historic District Commission are.
When it was our turn to speak before the Commission, I submitted the prepared memorandum and asked the Commission to grant relief to Robert Halstead. Since everyone in the City Hall bureaucracy acknowledges that no Permit should have been issued, I thought it would be a simple matter for the Commission to correct the error.
Chairman Sachs, after objecting to my ‘lawyerly’ submission, boldly announced that the Commission has no enforcement powers. When I pointed to the unambiguous language in the applicable state statute (Connecticut General Statutes section 7-147h(a)), the Chairman oozing arrogance, stated that former Bridgeport official Bill Minor had told him that no City employee was empowered to enforce orders or correct violations. In other words, this commission believes that it operates under rules it cannot enforce.
State law clearly says, “Regulations and orders of the Commission … shall be enforced by the zoning enforcement official or building inspector, or by any such person who may be designated by ordinance.”
Furthermore, the Commission is authorized to bring suit in Superior Court to restrain, correct and remove any violation.
After the meeting, I followed up with the State of Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development. This is the state agency charged with the oversight responsibilities of Historic District Commissions, per Connecticut General Statutes section 7-147c (g). I wrote to Mary Dunne, Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer. She wrote to Mr. Sachs, reiterating the authority of the Commission to enforce its orders.
In light of this enabling legislation, I doubt that even the Bridgeport City Attorney would tell the Commission that it has no enforcement powers. If the Commission votes to bring suit to correct or restrain a violation, the City Attorney must represent it.
At its next meeting, the Commission did not have a quorum. Informally, the Chairman continued to maintain that Robert Halstead has no remedy, despite being presented with the language of the statute and the unambiguous facts.
Hopefully, our City Attorney will explain the statutory powers enjoyed by the Historic District Commissions. Although Robert Halstead is not a Ganim administration favorite, I am confident that even Ganim’s loyal city attorneys will not opine with a straight face that no enforcement powers exist.
However, we must remember that, this is Bridgeport, and as it was stated in the classic Animal Farm by George Orwell, “some animals are more equal than others.”
Lopez letter to commission on behalf of Halstead:
POSITION STATEMENT OF AGGRIEVED PROPERTY OWNER OF 582 KOSSUTH STREET
HISTORY OF THE CASE
Robert Halstead is the owner of 582 Kossuth Street, a row house located within the Pembroke Historic District. The row house is occupied by a tenant.
In early June 2018, Mr. Halstead became aware of certain changes that were made to the adjoining property located at 584 Kossuth Street without the issuance of a Certificate of Appropriateness in violation of Connecticut General Statutes Section 7-147d.(a).
This section of Connecticut law states in relevant part that “No building or structure shall be erected or altered within an historic district until after an application for a certificate of appropriateness as to exterior architectural features has been submitted to the historic district commission and approved by said commission.”
The changes to the property include the installation of a driveway, among other changes. The driveway was installed using material that includes nails and other dangerous items. Furthermore, the installation of the illegal driveway was defective in that a jagged concrete edge was left on the curb by the person (s) installing the driveway. As a result of the defective installation, damage has been caused to the property and person of the tenant in 584 Kossuth Street.
In addition, officers of the Bridgeport Police Department have given parking tickets to cars parked in front of this illegal driveway, to the detriment of Mr. Halstead and his tenant.
On April 27, 2018, the City Department of Public Facilities approved a “Sidewalk, Curb and Driveway Permit” to the owner of 584 Kossuth Street. The Permit states that “Permission is hereby given to Homeowner, Myrna Silverio to ‘Remove and Replace Driveway Apron/ 584 Kossuth Street/Barnum Avenue.’
According to information and belief, the Office of the City Engineer approved the issuance of the permit without consideration of the legal requirements of a Historic District. Based on the approval of the City Engineer, the Division of Permits and Licenses of the Department of Public Facilities issued the permit in violation of state law and local ordinances.
Connecticut General Statutes Section 7-147d. (d) states that “No area within an historic district shall be used for industrial, commercial, business, home industry or occupational parking, whether or not such area is zoned for such use, until after an application for a certificate of appropriateness as to parking has been submitted to the commission and approved by said commission.”
Mr. Halstead contacted the Historic District Commission Chairman and other building officials in an effort to obtain a remedy to the violations.
On June 14, 2018, the Clerk of the Historic District Commission sent a letter to Mr. and Mrs. Jose and Myrna Silverio, the owners of 584 Kossuth Street. The letter advised the owners of the violation and requested that the owners file a submission to the Commission on or before June 26, 2018. The letter further advised the owners that the Commission would hold a meeting on July 9, 2018 and the submission should arrive in time for that meeting.
On June 27, 2018, the undersigned appeared at the Zoning Office and was told that no submission had been received by the Commission regarding this matter.
On June 28, 2017, Mr. Boucher, Clerk of the Historic District Commission sent an email to the undersigned attaching a copy of the agenda for the Commission meeting of July 9, 2108.
The agenda included an Item C, entitled “Other Business-584 Kossuth Street.”
No information was given to describe to the public, or to the aggrieved party, the reasons that the matter appeared on the agenda. Although a letter was sent to the owners of 584 Kossuth Street, the notice on the agenda is insufficient in that it does not indicate that the property owner has been determined to be in violation of the Historic District Regulations. The public has not been sufficiently informed per the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act.
Connecticut General Statutes Section 7-147a-m address Historic Districts. Section 7-147(b) permits a municipality to establish, within its confines, an Historic District.
Pursuant to the authority granted to it in this enabling legislation, the City of Bridgeport enacted ordinances to establish several Historic Districts within its borders. Sections 2.98.010 through 2.98.060 of the Bridgeport Code of Ordinances address the establishment of Historic District Commissions in the City of Bridgeport.
The Historic District Commission #1 was established pursuant to this ordinance and has jurisdiction over this matter.
The issue of Historic Districts and the legislation establishing such commissions has been litigated in Connecticut State Courts.
Furthermore, the enforcement powers given to a Historic District are detailed in General Statutes Section 7-147h (a) and (b) and include the imposition of fines.
Section 2.98.030 of the Bridgeport Code of Ordinances states that “The Historic District Commission shall have said powers and duties as are provided for in the Connecticut General Statutes.”
REQUEST FOR RELIEF
As relief for this violation of the Historic District Provisions, Mr. Halstead requests that this Commission enter an immediate order to the owners of 584 Kossuth Street to remove the iron gates on the property as well as any evidence of a driveway.
Furthermore, Mr. Halstead requests that the designation of the front lawn of this row house as a legal driveway be immediately revoked in light of the failure to obtain a certificate of appropriateness.
The Historic District Commission is asked to immediately inform the Department of Public Facilities that the Permit must be immediately revoked.
This order should be enforced by the imposition of a fine, to be determined by the Commission, for each day that the violation remains in place.
Carmen L. Lopez, for
Robert Halstead, Homeowner