Simmons admits expediting demolition of 1840 Mystic house

I am constantly surprised that I live in an enlightened Connecticut community improbably run by a Trump-supporting first selectman who makes weekly radio appearances that stake out a political terrain far from the town I know, like celebrating gun violence and stoking alt-right conspiracy theories.

Just Thursday, Rob Simmons was complaining that French authorities —"Frenchies," he snidely called them — are promoting a false narrative that the Notre Dame fire was accidental, as the Stonington first selectman inflated completely unsubstantiated right-wing claims that the fire was the work of Islamic terrorists.

It was as if, Simmons suggested of the French response, United States authorities claimed after 9/11 that the planes crashed into the towers because they ran out of fuel.

But Simmons already had topped himself for Trump-like outrageousness this week when he told The Day's Editorial Board that Stonington does not need a demolition delay ordinance — like those in place in most other eastern Connecticut communities, protection for historical properties — because he alone can decide what must stay and what can come down.

As first selectman, Simmons chairs a town committee that would be responsible for generating a demolition delay ordinance, and he told the newspaper board that a delay measure is on the committee's next meeting agenda.

But he didn't predict how the initiative, apparently made in response to the number of recent demolitions in town, might fare and said he doesn't think it is needed because he can stop a demolition if it is a building he personally deems worth saving.

Apparently, this is the royalist interpretation of first selectman authority in Stonington.

This proclamation of the authority to delay demolition, or not, held by the first selectman led to a conversation about the sudden demolition last year of several buildings in downtown Mystic, including an 1840 structure on Haley Street listed as a contributing building to the Mystic Bridge Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

Simmons said he was consulted and allowed the building to be torn down without the traditional waiting period imposed by the town.

Neighbors concerned about the pending demolition had relied on a 90-day waiting period for demolition that has long been a part of town demolition policy, number 10 on a list of demolition procedures then on file in Town Hall. They assumed they would have time to mount a legal challenge to save the historical building.

Simmons said this week he decided the 1840 building was not worth saving for its historical value and said he consulted with the lawyer for the building owner, who asserted that the demolition delay policy was not enforceable because it was not in any town ordinance.

Of course, by Simmons' royalist interpretation, he could have chosen to delay the demolition by fiat. But he didn't, and down the buildings came.

The first selectman noted that the demolition was being carried out by the owners of the Whaler's Inn, who he described as rich Norwegians investing a lot of money in the town. He said they later complained to him about the controversy over the demolitions.

I'm not the selectman but, if I were, I would have told them to go find another town to invest in if they want to tear down much of a historical block in a place that depends on history-related tourism.

It is worrisome to me, too, that the lawyer who convinced the first selectman to agree to a demolition rush job is the same lawyer who shepherded the Simmons family farm through a zone change that allows commercial use of their property. It certainly seems like a conflict. I'd feel betrayed if I lived on Haley Street and saw the selectman siding with developers and the family lawyer.

The first selectman insisted before the Editorial Board that the town's demolition delay policy was not written. That certainly is not true. I have a copy of it provided by neighbors who relied on it. It was even printed on the demolition application the Whaler's Inn owners signed.

I understand that the policy needs to be legally enshrined in ordinance, and I will give the first selectman credit for at least now allowing a debate over whether the town should have one to go on, even if he is on the wrong side of it.

A new ordinance won't bring back the buildings lost on Haley Street. The demolitions there forever ruined a 19th-century streetscape, with buildings of the same mass and character on both sides of the street.

The owners are planning to replace the Haley Street buildings with a parking lot. Neighbors think that's a zoning reach and plan to protest.

I wish them the best.

The best outcome would be to replace those buildings on Haley Street with something similar and try to reclaim the full sense of an old Mystic neighborhood that is otherwise lost forever, a sacrifice to the allure of a developer's riches.

I think Stonington is better than that.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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