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Stonington officials stood by while historical buildings were bulldozed

The demolition of the popular John's Mystic River Tavern in September got a lot of attention, owing to the public remorse of the café's clientele, which was loyal to the bitter end.

Less noticed but no less disruptive was the demolition of two houses nearby, 1 and 3 Haley St., on a quiet residential street in the heart of the downtown Mystic Bridge historic district, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The loss is still very painful for Bill Scheer of 4 Haley St., who watched helplessly — after his and his neighbor's pleas to town officials to at least delay the destruction were ignored — as a big machine clawed down one of the buildings, a 19th century hotel from the town's seafaring days. The furniture of the last tenants was still inside as the building was reduced to rubble.

The perpetrators, a family from Fairfield County that owns the adjacent Whaler's Inn, previously had shown Scheer, a blacksmith interpreter at Mystic Seaport Museum, and other neighbors drawings depicting a new restaurant building where John's had stood and a parking lot across the lots then occupied by houses at 1 and 3 Haley St.

Scheer, who has lived in the same 19th century house since 1975, now looks across the street to a vacant lot and, beyond, the interior parking lot and hotel rooms of the Whaler's Inn, lit brightly at night. He is bracing for a new zoning fight with the town to stop the owners from permanently installing a parking lot for their commercial business on his residential street.

How could this happen in Stonington? Even in New London, with all its problems and challenges, historically minded citizens used the city bureaucracy to whistle in the attorney general, who went to court this year to stop the demolition of two historical downtown buildings.

As I looked into the demolition crusade by the Whaler's Inn, talking to historic preservation advocates, I discovered this is part of a larger pattern of what seems to be willful neglect in Stonington officialdom when it comes to protecting historical assets that come under the pressure of development.

Mystic architect James Gibbs, who lives in a 19th century home a short walk from Haley Street, said he has tried to intervene three different times in recent years when the town has allowed historical buildings to be torn down.

"How do you bring back a neighborhood you've destroyed?" Gibbs said about the demolitions on Haley Street.

Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons did not return a phone message I left Thursday asking about the demolitions.

Building Official Lawrence Stannard, who signed the fateful demolition permit, also did not return phone calls.

Stannard actually changed the town's building demolition procedures, removing a rule requiring a 90-day waiting period, on the same day the application to tear down the Haley Street buildings was filed.

You couldn't make this up. A three-month waiting period for demolition that neighbors had relied upon to give them time to muster opposition, was summarily eliminated by the building official without any public notice.

Jason Vincent, Stonington's director of planning, told me Stannard was within his rights to change the demolition procedures waiting period rule because it is not enshrined in any ordinance or law.

Vincent, who didn't seem to be the least bit troubled to think that the character of a historical Mystic street was irreparably damaged, said his department has never worked to create a demolition waiting period with more legal strength because, well, the department is busy with other things.

Scheer and others who have been complaining about the demolition of historical buildings say they get nothing but a deaf ear in Vincent's department. They noted that, at the very least, the Planning and Zoning Commission could have intervened on the Haley demolitions, citing a regulation that allows  a "public hearing for permitted uses when (the commission) determines to do so will be in the interest of the public."

I never heard from anyone from the Heidenreich family, which owns the Whaler's Inn, after I left a message at the front desk.

Their attorney, William Sweeney, told me they followed the town's rules, which is true. He also questioned the historic value of the buildings, which you might expect him to argue.

Sweeney said the owners still are working out plans for what will go on the empty lots they have created. He said he could not comment on whether the parking lot on Haley Street included on the design shown to neighbors still is planned.

You would think they might have decided exactly what they plan to do before taking down a historical building and ruining a fine residential street.

One wonders where the borough-centric Stonington Historical Society has been while the preservation-minded in Mystic have grown alarmed at all the demolition.

It looks to me like the government of a town that lets its sewage plant operator pump E. coli into the Mystic River and pays no attention to the lack of zoning and planning protection for its considerable historical assets needs a shakeup.

This is the opinion of David Collins.


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